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By David Balaban
Sun | May 14, 2023 | 7:42 AM PDT

WordPress is the undisputed champion in the area of content management systems (CMS), and for good reason. It boasts unparalleled flexibility and ease of use while supporting a slew of themes and plugins that extend various aspects of your website's functionality. Plus, it is readily available to anyone on an open-source basis. Unsurprisingly, this CMS is used by 43% of all sites in existence. This immense popularity is a double-edged sword, though. It makes WordPress (WP) the most heavily attacked platform of its kind.

As soon as your WP-powered website goes live, it finds itself in an aggressive environment populated by bots that incessantly bombard it with rogue requests to find misconfigurations and vulnerabilities. The silver lining is that the pillar of this CMS, known as WordPress Core, is well secured against exploitation. However, third-party plugins and themes can be easy prey and fuel different types of compromise.

Contrary to a common belief, WordPress security isn't limited to the use of hard-to-guess access credentials and turnkey malware scanners. The bigger picture spans plenty of other challenges you should be prepared to tackle.

Excessive trust in security plugins

If you think a single plugin is enough to keep your website safe, think again. Of course, this approach is tempting because it requires little effort on a webmaster's end, but absolute protection is more complex than that. Whereas most of these applets are worth installing as an additional defensive layer, the main pitfall is that they may create an illusion of ultimate security and make you neglect other precautions.

Such plugins are good at detecting prevalent malware species, but they hardly ever close gaps that allow attacks to happen, in the first place. For instance, if a malicious actor gains a foothold in your site once, they may open a backdoor that stays under the radar indefinitely. Attacks will keep occurring as long as this loophole is there. Here is a real-life analogy: if you focus on treating symptoms, this doesn't necessarily take care of the underlying infection, does it?

WordPress malware scanners mostly leverage signature-based detection logic and therefore might fail to catch emerging threats. Some website owners think that installing several security plugins will fill the void, but the accumulated protection rarely yields better results. To top it off, it may have a reverse effect by causing software conflicts that will severely impact your website's performance.

A more judicious strategy is to combine the use of such tools with extra mechanisms that foil abuse proactively. An endpoint web application firewall (WAF) can closely monitor incoming traffic and works wonders in forestalling zero-day incursions. A cloud-based WAF, in turn, will take the defenses a step further by stopping DDoS assaults and filtering malicious bot requests.

The scourge of malware

Cybercriminals can get a lot of mileage out of poisoning WordPress sites with malicious code. Their objectives range from intercepting users' access credentials or credit card details to embedding scripts that serve advertisements or download Trojans onto visitors' devices. Malware can also drill a backdoor for future attacks.

Obsolete or compromised WP themes and plugins are the primary catalysts for malware infiltration. With that said, a sure-shot way to avoid this scenario is to keep these entities up to date. Thankfully, the admin dashboard instantly notifies you when new versions are available. Before adding another plugin to your set-up, take your time and carefully examine its track record, including the reputation of the publisher and the user feedback. Also, audit your installed plugins and get rid of the ones you don't use anymore.

When deciding which theme to choose, don't narrow down your search criteria to aesthetic aspects only. Treat any previously reported security vulnerabilities as potential red flags. Also, go for the content provided on reputable sources like ThemeForest and the official WordPress Themes directory that rigorously check their materials for malicious properties.

A security plugin can help you keep widespread threats at bay, but it is not a replacement for proper webmaster hygiene and will probably miss the next major outbreak of undocumented WordPress malware. Take the updates of your site's third-party components seriously and add a WAF to the mix so that the newest nasties have a minuscule chance to get in and wreak havoc.

SQL injection

This exploitation method has several bitter flavors. Worst of all, it may undermine the integrity of your website's database that retains all important information. A set of competently tailored malicious SQL statements can allow a threat actor to view, change, or wipe this critical data repository. Another common scenario involves creating new user accounts with high-level permissions and then abusing them to blemish the Internet footprint and reputation of your resource.

To execute an SQL injection attack, hackers usually parasitize website modules intended for user interaction. The classic examples are login dialogs and contact forms. The idea is to set off unpredictable behavior of the backend in response to peculiar requests entered in these fields.

Restricting the types of allowed user input is the most effective technique to thwart such exploitation. Make sure that requests with a bunch of special characters in them, which a normal visitor wouldn't enter in a web form, never reach your WordPress database.

Additionally, since SQL injection is mainly an automated process, you should implement anti-bot measures. Integrate a challenge-response test or another form of human verification into the user interaction workflow.

Cross-site scripting

A cross-site scripting (XSS) attack is aimed at tainting a website with scripts that quietly execute dodgy commands in a visitor's web browser. Because this activity stems from a legitimate, albeit covertly compromised resource, the browser typically identifies no signs of danger and allows the scripts to retrieve cookies as well as other confidential data it stores.

Crooks can also take advantage of XSS to modify the visual manifestation of a website by adding phony forms or posting malicious links. This interference may also facilitate malware distribution schemes that stick to zero-click logic or require hardly any user action.

Again, easy-to-hack WordPress themes and plugins account for the vast majority of these incursions. Therefore, patching their security holes via timely updates is the best prevention strategy. A major obstacle to staying safe is that even unauthenticated users can carry out the XSS trickery. This quirk makes it possible to reproduce such attacks and automate their execution.

Crude authentication

The long-time mantra about strong passwords makes a whole lot of sense in the WordPress context. Believe it or not, your website is on the receiving end of incessant brute-force attacks, in which innumerable username-password pairs are automatically entered to try to sign in. With AI and significant computation power at present-day crooks' disposal, cracking a recklessly weak combination like "admin" and "abc123" can be a matter of minutes.

The fact that most webmasters stick with the default sign-in page ([URL]/wp-login.php or [URL]/wp-admin.php) provides crooks with a shortcut for their foul play. To avoid ending up in the same boat, consider using a specially crafted WordPress plugin to set a custom login address.

Another tip is to automate and harden the security of your authentication practices with a reliable password management application. It can create strong passwords for you and store them in a tamper-proof way. Additionally, turn on two-factor authentication (2FA) so that an extra piece of data, such as a one-time password (OTP) or a biometric identifier, is required to sign in. Installing a plugin that restricts the number of failed login instances can take it up a notch.

Keep in mind that these precautions are half-baked unless your WordPress website uses a valid SSL certificate. With an industry-standard security protocol at its core, it leverages cryptography to make all internet connections between a browser and a web server tamper-proof. Even if threat actors are able to intercept authentication data as it is being entered, real-time encryption will prevent them from abusing it.

Distributed denial-of-service (DDoS)

DDoS is a global concern whose repercussions go far beyond the WordPress ecosystem. Nevertheless, since this CMS prevails over others in terms of the market share and is used by quite a few major businesses, including Microsoft, Sony, and Toyota, the websites it powers are subject to frequent knock-down attempts.

The mechanics of this abuse boil down to swamping a web application or server with an anomalous flood of fraudulent Internet traffic. This congests the target resource's capacity to process legitimate requests or makes it completely inaccessible. Not only is DDoS a notorious element of hacktivists' repertoire, but it is also increasingly used as a pressure tactic in cyber-extortion attacks.

The most reasonable DDoS mitigation approach is to use a WAF solution from a trusted service specializing in this area, such as Cloudflare or Sucuri. In addition, make sure you choose a web hosting provider with decent customer support and solid security background.


WordPress is awesome but with the caveat that cybercriminals target it on a large scale. Let's face it, attacks against websites that use this CMS aren't going anywhere anytime soon. The good news is that keeping WordPress, your plugins, and themes up to date should suffice to avoid major problems. To err on the side of caution, though, you should build a comprehensive protection strategy that combines automatic security tools with a good deal of vigilance.