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What to Do When Your WordPress Site Gets Hacked

Home > What to Do When Your WordPress Site Gets Hacked
 
Posted by on April 1, 2019 in | Comments

How to recover When Your WordPress Site Gets Hacked

Help! I’ve been hacked!

If you’ve ever experienced a hack of a WordPress site, you know that it’s one of the scariest things that can happen when you’re responsible for running and maintaining a website.

Hacks always seem to occur at the worst possible time.  They occur just as your website is growing and experiencing record levels of traffic.  Or they occur just before your company spokesman goes on TV and mentions the site!  Or they happen right after you started running an online ad campaign promoting the site.

They always seem to happen at the worst possible and most embarassing of times.  The question isn’t if anyone is trying to hack your WordPress site – the question is will you be able to stop them before they do.

As one of the most powerful and popular web publishing platforms there is – WordPress’s mere popularity makes it an automatic target for hackers.

My Dad was a private pilot, and I grew up flying with him.  The one thing all pilots train for is emergencies.  Part of your basic pilot training is practicing over and over again what you would do if the plane stalls in mid-flight.  They teach you how to recover from a stall, they teach you how to find a safe place to land if you can’t get the engine re-started.  And they do this over and over and over again.  So, if your engine does ever go out for real, it will be no sweat.  If you’ve been trained well, you could almost handle the situation in your sleep.

So, it’s a good idea and we highly recommend that web developers and admins train for hacking emergencies as one will be likely to happen at some point in your career.

Therefore, we thought we’d share some of the solid advice offered by WordPress and Google to help you get prepared in case a hacking emergency ever happens to you.

One of the most shocking ways to find out your site has been hacked is, speaking from personal experience, when you crawl out of bed one morning, click on the computer or tablet and check your site, only to find out that it has been totally defaced.  You Will Panic.  Maybe you’ll see a message from a hacker who supports ISIS!  Or maybe your homepage will be covered in vile, disgusting words.  Whatever it is, it will be something you won’t want anyone else to see.  You’ll want to get it down absolutely as fast as you can.   And you will, if it’s your first time, PANIC!

That type of visible attack will make you panic, for sure!  But there’s another type of attack that you may not see or be aware of at all.  We’ll talk about that in a minute.

RELATED:   How to Keep Your WordPress Website Secure

Medical professionals who work with all kinds of life-threatening emergencies will tell you – the least effective way to solve an emergency situation is to let yourself feel rushed.  The very first thing you have to do is stay calm!  Easier said than done, I know!  But, that’s why you should train for an emergency – often.  Only when you are fully trained and prepared like pilots or emergency medical personnel, will you be able to smoothly and calmly move through the steps to resolution like it was no sweat.

How to Tell if Your WordPress Site was Hacked

A hack is a very ambiguous term, which in it of itself will provide little insights into what exactly happened. To ensure you get the help you need via the forums, be sure to understand the specific symptoms that lead you to believe you’ve been hacked. These are otherwise known as Indicators of Compromise (IoC).

A couple of IoC’s that are clear indicators of a hack include:

  • Website is blacklisted by Google, Bing, etc..
  • Host has disabled your website
  • Website has been flagged for distributing malware
  • Visitors complaining that their anti-virus programs are flagging your site
  • Contacted that your website is being used to attack other sites
  • Notice behavior that was not authorized (i.e., creation of new users, etc…)
  • You can visibly see that your site has been hacked when you open it in the browser

Not all hacks are created equal, so when engaging in the forums please keep this in mind. If you can better understand the symptoms the teams will be better equipped to provide help.

Below you will find a series of steps that are designed to help you start working through the post-hack process. They are not all encompassing as it would be impractical to account for every scenario, but they are designed to help you think through the process.

Some of the steps below take a lot of time to read and learn about.  This is where you need to prepare ahead of time.  Go through this list and learn about some of the steps now so you’ll be fully prepared.

First Steps in Resolving a WordPress Hack

FIRST AND FOREMOST, STAY CALM
When addressing a security issue, as a website owner, you’re likely experiencing an undue amount of stress. It’s often the most vulnerable you have found yourself since being on line and it’s contrary to what every one told you, “Hey, WordPress is Easy!!”
The good news is that all is not lost! Yes, you might lose some money. Yes, you might take a hit against your brand. Yes, you will recover from this.
So, yes, take a step back and compose yourself. Doing so will allow you to more effectively take control of the situation and allow you to recover your online presence.
DOCUMENT EVERYTHING

The first actionable step you should take post-compromise is documentation. Take a moment to document what you’re experiencing, and if possible times. A couple of things you want to keep in mind:

  • What are you seeing that leads you to believe you are hacked?
  • What time did you notice this issue? What timezone?
  • What actions have you taken recently? Was a new plugin installed? Did you make a change to a theme? Modify a widget?

You are creating the baseline for what is recognized as an incident report. Whether you are planning to perform the incident response yourself, or engage a professional organization, this document will prove invaluable over time.

Recommend taking a moment to annotate details of your host environment as well. It will be required at some point during the incident response process.

SCAN YOUR WEBSITE
When scanning your website you have a few different ways to do this, you can use external remote scanners or application level scanners. Each are designed to look and report on different things. No one solution is the best approach, but together you improve your odds greatly.

Application Based Scanners (Plugins):

Remote Based Scanners (Crawlers):

There are also a number of other related security plugins available in the WP repository. The ones annotated above have been around a long time and have strong communities behind each of them.

SCAN YOUR LOCAL ENVIRONMENT

In addition to scanning your website, you should start scanning your local environment. 

In many instances, the source of the attack / infection begins on your local computer (i.e., notebook, desktop, etc…). Attackers may be running trojans locally that allow them to sniff login access information to things like FTP and /wp-admin that allow them to log in as the site owner.

Make sure you run a full anti-virus/malware scan on your local machine. Some viruses are good at detecting AV software and hiding from them. So maybe try a different one. This advice extends to both Windows, OS X and Linux machines.

CHECK WITH YOUR HOSTING PROVIDER

The hack may have affected more than just your site, especially if you are using shared hosting. It is worth checking with your hosting provider in case they are taking steps or need to. Your hosting provider might also be able to confirm if a hack is an actual hack or a loss of service, for example.
One very serious implication of a hack these days is around Email blacklisting. This seems to be happening more and more. As websites are abused to send out SPAM emails, Email Blacklist authorities are flagging the website IP’s and those IP’s are often associated with the same server being used for email.

BE MINDFUL OF WEBSITE BLACKLISTS

Google Blacklist issues can be detrimental to your brand. They currently blacklist somewhere in the neighborhood of 9,500 to 10,000 websites a day. This number grows daily. There are various forms of warnings, from large splash pages warning users to stay away, to more subtle warnings that pop up in your Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs).
Although Google is one of the more prominent ones, there are a number of other blacklist entities like Bing, Yahoo and a wide range of Desktop AntiVirus applications. Understand that your clients and anyone who can login to the admin area and even your website visitors may have any any of vulnerabilities on their local machines as they access your site and any one of them could be causing the issue.
It’s recommended that you register your site with the various online webmaster consoles.

Webmaster Consoles You Should Register With

IMPROVE YOUR ACCESS CONTROLS

You will often hear folks talking about updating things like Passwords. Yes, this is a very important piece, but it’s one small piece in a much larger problem. We need improve our overall posture when it comes to access control. This means using Complex, Long and Unique passwords for starters. The best recommendation is to use a Password Generator like those found in apps like 1Password and LastPass.
Remember that this includes changing all access points. When we say access points we mean things like FTP / SFTP, WP-ADMIN, CPANEL (or any other administrator panel you use with your host) and MYSQL.
This also extends beyond your user, and must include all users that have access to the environment.
It is also recommended to consider using some form of Two Factor / Multi-Factor authentication system.  In it’s most basic form, it introduces, and requires, a second form of authentication when logging into your WordPress instance.

Plugins that will give you two-factor authentication:

RESET ALL ACCESS

Once you identify a hack, one of the first steps you will want to do is lock things down so that you can minimize any additional changes. The first place to start is with your users. You can do this by forcing a global password reset for all users, especially administrators.
Two plug-ins that will reset all access to your site:
You also want to clear any users that might be actively logged into WordPress. You do this by updating the secret keys in wp-config. You will need to create a new set here: the WordPress key generator. Take those values then overwrite the values in your wp-config.php file with the new ones. This will force anyone that might still be logged in off.

CREATE A BACKUP

You hopefully have a backup of your website, but if you don’t, this will be a good time to create one. Backups are a critical piece of your continuation of operations, and should be something you actively plan for moving forward. You should also ask your host what their policy is as it pertains to backups. If you do have a backup, you should be able to perform a restore and skill right into the forensics work.
Side note: It’s important you keep regular backups of your database and files. If this ever happens again.
Regardless, before you move into the next phase of cleaning, it is recommended you take one more snapshot of the environment. Even if it’s infected, depending on the type of hack, the impacts can cause a lot of issues and in the event of catastrophic failure you’ll at least have that bad copy to reference.

FIND AND REMOVE THE HACK

This will be the most daunting part of the entire process. Finding and removing the hack. The exact steps you take will be dictated by a number of factors, including, but not limited to, the symptoms provided above. How you approach the problem will be determined by your own technical aptitude working with websites and web servers.

A few resources to help you find and remove the hack:

It might be tempting to purge everything and start over. In some cases that’s possible, but in many instances it’s just not possible. What you can do however is reinstall certain elements of the site with little regard to impacting the core of your website. You always want to make sure you reinstall the same version of software your website is using, if you choose an older or newer one you’re likely to kill your website. When reinstalling, be sure not to use the reinstall options in your WP-ADMIN. Use your FTP / SFTP application to drag and drop the versions. This will prove much more effective in the long run as those installers often only overwrite existing files, and hacks often introduce new files… You can replace the following directories safely:

  • /wp-admin
  • /wp-includes
From there, it’s recommended that you be more diligent in updating and replacing files as you move through wp-content as it contains your theme and plugin files.

The one file you will definitely want to look at is your .htaccess file. It’s one of the more common files, regardless of the type of infection, that is most often updated and used for nefarious activities. This file is often located at the root of your installation folder, but can also be embedded within several other directories on the same installation.
Regardless of the type of infection, there are will be some common files you will want to keep an eye on during your remediation process. They include:

  • index.php
  • header.php
  • footer.php
  • function.php
If modified, these files can usually adversely affect all page requests, making them high targets for bad actors.

LEVERAGE THE COMMUNITY

We often forget but we’re a community based platform, this means that if you’re in trouble someone in the community is likely to give a lending hand. A very good place to start if you’re strapped for cash or just looking for a helping hand is the WordPress.org Hacked or Malware forum.

UPDATE YOUR WORDPRESS INSTALLATION!

Once you are clean, you should update your WordPress installation to the latest software. Older versions are more prone to hacks than newer versions.

CHANGE YOUR PASSWORDS AGAIN

Remember, you need to change the passwords for your site after making sure your site is clean. So if you only changed them when you discovered the hack, change them again now. Again remembering to use Complex, Long and Unique passwords.

FORENSICS

Forensics is the process of understanding what happened. How did the attackers get in? The goal is to understand the attack vector a bad actor used to ensure they’re unable to abuse it again. In many instances, it’s very difficult for website owners to perform this type of analysis due to lack of technical knowledge and / or available data. If you do have the metadata required, then there are tools like like OSSEC and splunk that can help you synthesize the data.

SECURE YOUR SITE

Now that you have successfully recovered your site, secure it by implementing some (if not all) of the recommended security measures.

CAN’T LOG INTO WORDPRESS ADMIN PANEL

There are times that a bad actor will hijack your administrator account[s]. This is not a reason to panic, there are a few different things you can do to regain control of your account. You can follow these steps to reset your password
Tools like phpMyAdmin and Adminer are often made available via your hosting provider. They allow you to log into your database directly, bypassing your Administration Screen and resetting your user in the users table wp_users.
If you don’t want to mess with password hashes or can’t figure it out, simply update your email and go back to Login Screen, click forgot password, and wait for the email.

USING VERSION CONTROL?

If you are using version control, it can be very handy to quickly identify what has changed and to rollback to a previous version of the website. From the terminal or command line you can compare your files with the versions stored in the official WordPress repository.

$ svn diff .

Or compare a specific file: $ svn diff /path/to/filename

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