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By Alex Vakulov
Tue | Mar 12, 2024 | 5:05 AM PDT

Discovering your WordPress site has been compromised is a daunting experience for any website owner. This situation demands immediate action to mitigate damage and restore security.

WordPress is an exceptionally popular content management system (CMS). According to recent statistics, WordPress controls 62.5% of the CMS market share, with 42.7% of all sites using WordPress. This amounts to more than 455 million websites. Due to this high popularity, it also becomes a primary target for attacks. While the WordPress Core is generally secure, thanks to frequent security updates, hackers can often easily exploit third-party plugins and themes.

When a website gets hacked, the aftermath can be expensive and long-lasting, and the recovery process is often extremely difficult. Beyond just cleaning up the code, you might find yourself starting from scratch to rebuild the website's reputation.

Given this, it is wiser to be cautious and adopt safe practices to prevent such a scenario. But what happens if a hack has already occurred? Let's explore the warning signs and discuss how to repair the damage.

Signs of a security breach to observe

While the CMS and its components might be prone to a variety of common technical issues over time, it is important to learn how to distinguish those from a security breach. Here are signs that might indicate a potential compromise:

  • Difficulty logging in
  • Your website's content has changed without your knowledge
  • Web browsers show security warnings to visitors of your site
  • Your site is being blacklisted by search engines, with warnings to users about potential risks if they click on your site in search results
  • Antivirus programs are marking your site as unsafe
  • Your site is unexpectedly redirecting to a different site
  • You receive a notification from your WordPress engine, plugin, or theme about a potential breach
  • Your hosting provider alerts you to suspicious activity on your website or suspends your account in more severe cases
  • Increased server resource usage or unusual server activity
  • New or unknown directories or files appear in the site's file structure
  • Unexplained spikes in website traffic or unusual patterns in visitor behavior
  • Unusual or unauthorized purchases and transactions detected on your website
  • Sudden drops in search engine rankings or visibility

If you have encountered any of these issues, it is crucial to act quickly. Next, let's discuss the steps to take to recover from a hack.

Dealing with a WordPress hack: a step-by-step guide

Stay calm

First things first: keep calm. Clear-headed thinking is crucial because you will have to make significant choices to recover successfully. So, instead of panicking, relax and focus on fixing your hacked WordPress site.

Change passwords

Since pinpointing the exact password an attacker used to break into your site is pretty much a shot in the dark, it is best to reset all your passwords. This means not just updating your WordPress dashboard password but also changing your database, Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) setup, and hosting provider account credentials. Ensure all admin and standard user accounts have new passwords.

Activate website maintenance mode

Ensure your site visitors remain unaware of any potential hack—it could damage your reputation. A clever tactic to conceal any issues is to give the impression that your site is simply undergoing routine maintenance. You can activate this mode through the admin panel, although there is a chance you may not be able to access it due to the compromise. If you cannot activate it immediately, simply do so once you have successfully reset your password and logged in again.

Scan for malware

Numerous WordPress breaches involve backdoors, enabling attackers to bypass authentication and quietly carry out malicious activities. This allows them to maintain unauthorized access without being detected for extended periods, such as weeks or even months.

Identify these problems by scanning your site for known vulnerabilities and hidden malware. Research and select a reliable WP security plugin to address these issues thoroughly. Once the tool detects suspicious code, utilize its automatic cleanup function to remove it. Furthermore, many plugins offer guidance on strengthening your website's configuration to prevent future breaches.

Update plugins and themes

After regaining access and eliminating malicious code, navigate to the "Updates" section in your WP dashboard. Proceed to install any pending updates for your plugins and themes. This step is crucial because your other actions may be ineffective if you do not address vulnerabilities in third-party components that leave your site vulnerable to future compromises.

Uninstall suspicious third-party components

If you are unsure about the security of a particular theme or plugin, it is best to uninstall it. This is especially important for free items obtained from sources outside the official WordPress directory.

Review the user list and permissions

Take a close look at the list of user accounts with access to various areas of your WordPress site. Delete those accounts immediately if you discover any users who should not be there. A wise strategy for the long term is to adhere to the principle of least privilege: assign roles to new users that only grant access necessary for their intended tasks on your website. Avoid making everyone an administrator, as this can lead to potential security risks.

Clean up the sitemap

If an attacker has tampered with your sitemap XML file, search engines are likely to notice the irregularity, potentially leading to your site being blacklisted. Carefully review the sitemap and correct any discrepancies. A reputable SEO plugin can simplify this process.

Next, inform search engines that your site is secure. Access the Google Search Console and resubmit your sitemap. Once the search engine re-crawls your site and confirms its safety, the blacklisting problem should be resolved.

Restore from backups, if available

If you have been diligent in regularly backing up your WordPress website, recovering from a hack will be a breeze. The advice about the significance of this practice is well-founded. Reverting to an earlier backup is far simpler than meticulously reviewing extensive code and manually cleaning up the database, sitemap, and third-party components.

Legal notifications

If the hack involves a data breach that affects user data, you may need to send notifications to the affected users and regulatory bodies.

Strengthening security to prevent future hacks

After experiencing a hack, it is vital to focus on securing your WordPress site against any future incidents. By taking several proactive steps now, you can protect your site's integrity and ensure sensitive data remains safe.

Use strong passwords

Ensure your passwords are long and impossible to guess by combining numbers, lowercase and uppercase letters, and special characters. Avoid using predictable details like your birthdate, name, or commonly used words. Additionally, consider requiring other admins and users to sign documents as part of a policy agreement that mandates strong password practices.

Limit user privileges

Assign users only the permissions necessary for their specific tasks on the website. Avoid giving unnecessary administrative privileges to prevent unauthorized access and potential security breaches.

Always maintain website backups

Make sure to routinely back up your WordPress site to ensure that you always have a recent copy of your site's data available in case of a security incident or system failure. Securely store your backups and regularly test restoration procedures to ensure they function correctly.

Check third-party code before installing

Before installing plugins and themes, carefully review their code to ensure they are from reputable vendors and do not include any vulnerabilities or malicious code. Stick to reliable sources to reduce the chance of security breaches.

Remove unused plugins

Unused plugins, themes, and other third-party components can pose security risks if not regularly updated and maintained. Remove any unnecessary components to reduce the potential attack surface of your website.

Keep the WordPress engine up to date

Regularly update your WordPress core software to the latest version to patch known security vulnerabilities and ensure your site remains secure. Enable automatic updates whenever feasible to simplify the process.

Use a trusted hosting provider

Opt for a reliable and properly configured hosting service that prioritizes security and offers regular security updates, firewalls, malware scanning, and data encryption. A trusted hosting provider can help safeguard your website against security breaches and downtime.

Check file permissions

Ensure that file permissions on your server are correctly configured to prevent unauthorized access. Incorrect file permissions can create security vulnerabilities that hackers exploit.

Monitor file changes

Establish file integrity monitoring to identify any unauthorized changes to WordPress files. This can help you identify signs of malicious activity promptly and respond accordingly.

Implement multi-factor authentication

Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) for all user accounts on your WordPress site. This enhances security by mandating users to use a secondary form of verification, like a code sent to their phone, along with their password.

Enable Web Application Firewall (WAF)

Install and configure a web application firewall (WAF) to help protect your site from common security threats, such as SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks.

Regular security audits

Conduct regular security audits of your WordPress site to identify and address any potential vulnerabilities, leveraging security compliance resources to maintain a robust defense posture.

Install a WordPress security plugin

Consider enhancing the security of your WordPress site by installing a reputable security plugin. These plugins provide functions like scanning for malware, setting up a firewall, and enhancing login security against brute-force attacks.


WordPress is an excellent content management system, but it is not without security vulnerabilities. Therefore, it is essential to proactively protect your website and have a plan in place to recover from any compromises.