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Category: Site security -

Website Security: This Excites me!

Sitting trying to find my php.ini for my local WordPress multi-install, and getting frustrated that I know I found it, and I changed the value I needed to change, but it isn’t show up as changed, I get an en email. It only contains one thing, but a beautiful thing:

Dear Site Admin,

A host, 198.154.227.219, has been locked out of the WordPress site at http://pureheartcenter.com due to too many attempts to access a file that does not exist.

Then I sit back and reflect a little on why I am busting my ass doing this work. All the training, all the classes, and all the reading. On top of that trying to find new clients. All whist dealing with being at the end of a horrendous Chemo and Radiation treatment for Cancer, (did I get the medal yet?) Then the Universe shows up with this. It may not mean a lot to most of you readers, but it means the world to me. It means that I am learning a little about website security, and the things I am implementing are paying off. Happy days.

barbapple studiosI had two such emails yesterday for a client site, and I had no problems sharing it with them. I enjoyed letting them know that they are now protected. This particular client had been hacked badly, her site had been down for 2 months, and she was losing money before she found us. So we fixed her up, and now she can rest assured that things are working on her behalf, and she can get on with focussing on her own stuff, and leave the running of the website to us.

The client in question is hosting with a notoriously bad host that a lot of people use because they appear to be cheap up front, and they are a popular domain registration website as well. So heck, why not do everything in the one place, right? This host has been getting some real bad press lately about it’s inability to stop spammers and hackers, but why would that be an issue for them since they have a product they can sell you for that should such an event occur, mmmmmmm.

There are a few ‘too big to fail’ companies out there doing the very same thing. That is why small personal touch companies such as BarbApple Studios need to band together, and work a little harder at getting through to these clients to show them that there is a better, smarter way to take care of their website.

This hacker was thwarted by two plug-ins, two not so measly plug-ins with I will cover in a minute. A plugin that was correctly installed and configured. Hey that’s what you pay us for, and this is proof that your money is well spent right? It is the desire to do something well, and to keep at it that should drive us. If what you are doing sucks, then do something else. If you can’t stop doing what you are doing, then do that something else at the same time until you can transition over to it.

ithemes-security-pro-logo

iThemes Security

wordfence-logo2

WordFence Security

The plug-ins in question are Wordfence, and iThemes Security, and these are in my ‘recommended plug-ins’ article. These are a must install in my humble opinion on every website. They match all 5 of my 5 Step Criteria as to when to install a plug-in. I will post the 5 step below so that you don’t have go to another article to read them.


There are other things I look for, but these are my top 5. Don’t be shy about leaving a comment on what you think is important for a plug-in. I am open to new things.

BarbApple Studios 5 Step Criteria for the Installation of a Plug-in

  1. Do you really need it
    1. Sometimes we do install plugins for a reason other than necessity. That reason, and we all do it, is just because it’s cool. I have nothing against have these cool plug-ins on a website as long as they don’t break my 5 rules. Even a plug-in that I feel my site really needs is not implemented unless it passes the tests.
  2. Does it rate high
    1. This doesn’t help newer plug-ins.
    2. Those ones that have just been born and look like they are going to grow up into something really useful.
    3. This is where you make a choice as to whether or not you think it is worth.
    4. If it works then go and rate it so you can contribute to the rating portion of the 5 Step Criteria.
  3. Is it updated on a regular basis
    1. Does it say “Not tested with your particular version of WordPress” when you look at the details portion of the plugin?
  4. Do they offer a decent free version and a paid version
    1. Does the free version actually have enough features turned on to check out what it can do properly?
    2. Does the paid version offer enough of a change, and add something you can use that would enhance your site even more?
  5. How fast is their technical support
    1. Send an email to support and see how fast the get back to you
    2. Sometimes this can go back to number 4. Maybe the fast technical support is only in the paid version. I have seen that in some plugins.

But even the basic configuration of these plug-ins will help you slow down any attempt at malicious entry into your website. Nothing is perfect, and I am sure there are those of you out there that could do a better job, but what we do here at BarbApple Studios works, and works well. It doesn’t take long to read their installation and configuration documentation anyway if you wanted to tweak them further. So take the time with these plug-ins an you won’t be disappointed with the results.

 




Types of WordPress Plugins I Should Use

BarbApple Studios Web Design

WordPress plugins tree

As you can see from the above chart, it is more like the family tree of plugins off the main WordPress core. The explanation and the presentation of it is my interpretation of the WordPress plugin hierarchy. I know some of you may not agree, some of you will, and even more of you will think it is over simplified, but that’s the kind of thing I meant to convey.

The WordPress core itself is extremely secure, and by that I mean as secure as any content management system, CMS out there can be. Since it is written and updated by developers, and has a whole community behind it helping its validity, it is one of the most secure CMS’s out there today. It has checks and balances because if it.

The WordPress core, (red,) is the most secure version of your site. As it moves to the right and you keep adding more and more things, such as plugins, it gets less secure, (white.) Coming off of the green into the blue area denotes a website that is more vulnerable to breaking and/ or getting hacked. My best advice is to make sure security is in place, and research your vanity plugins thoroughly before installing them.

Must have plug-ins: These are the plugins in my book that I feel no WordPress website should be without. This will definitely vary from person to person, and from developer to developer. These are the plugins that I recommend, and I am totally open to this changing as I learn more or hear better arguments. That can happen a lot in this business, and one of the coolest thing about WordPress. In this area I have the following categories: Backups, Updating, Security, and Anti-spam.

Should have WordPress plugins: These are the plugins that you will install after you have finished installing and testing the plugins on the “Must have” list. This section, plus the previous section will give you a fully functioning interactive site, with the bare minimum of headache when you are trying to keep your site secure. I have included the following categories in this area: SEO, Caching, Responsiveness, and Forms. Personally I don’t think you can do without any of the plug-ins from either of the above areas. This, to me, is a full site if you are looking to have a functional, interactive site, that also has the chance to be discovered in the web.

Vanity WordPress plugins: Believe it or not, this is a favourite section of mine. I do like my Vanity plugins, because some of them are really cool, add value, and most are very well supported. I am not one of those developer that will poo-poo you because you want to add vanity plugins to your website. If I am designing your website you just have to abide by my rules when it comes to any plugins in this category. You just have to be careful how you choose a Vanity plugin, and what purpose it is supposed to serve on your site.

I have created a table for you to look at with specific examples of plugins I use that fall into each of the areas. Also when adding a new plugin directly from the list below, I have outlined the procedure below, and this procedure should work most of the time, but otherwise it is very easy to figure out:

  1. Click the link to the plugin
  2. Download the plugin to your hard-drive
  3. Go back into your “Admin” section of your site
  4. Select “Plugins”
  5. Select “Add New”
  6. Select “Upload Plugin” at the top of the page
  7. Cling the “Choose file” button
  8. Find the plugin on your heard-drive – highlight file and select Open, (usually in your downloads folder.)
  9. Click the “Install Now”
  10. Activate plugin
  11. Re-read documentation on the plugin to know how it sets itself up on your computer
  12. Check that plugin is there and configure it

Video coming soon on how to download and install a plugin

 

Area Category Specific plugin (* = Best in my book)
Must Have Backup Backup Buddy * No free version
BackWPUp * – Free
Updating iThemes Sync * Free – on-line service
JetPack Monitor Free – on-line service
ManageWP * Monthly subscription – on-line service
Security iThemes Security * Free and paid version
Sucuri * No free version – on-line
CloudFlare * Free and paid version – on-line service
Really Simple CAPTCHA – Free
 Anti-Spam Akismet – * Free and comes with WordPress
Should Have SEO WordPress SEO by Yoast * Free and paid version
Caching W3 Total Cache * – Free and paid version
P3 (Plugin Performance Profiler) – Free
Responsiveness WP Touch * – Paid version
JetPack Mobile theme – Free
Forms Gravity Forms * – No free version
Contact Forms 7 * Free
Vanity Editor WPEdit * Free
Social buttons Floating Social Bar * Free
SumoMe – Free and paid version – On-line service with plugin
Widgets Display Widgets – Free
Media Library Enhanced Media Library – Free
Typogrphy Google Font Manager – Free
Hide Title – Free
No Page Comment – Free
Yet Another Related Posts Plugin – Free

There are definitely tons more plugins than this, but this will give you a basic idea of the areas that you will most likely need to fill first. Whatever you are looking for can be found by following the steps above the table for finding a plugin or a type of plugin. Let’s say you have an idea and you want to see if there is a plugin exists that might help, then type it in.

Remember that a bad plugin has the potential of crashing your site. So when you install a plugin, always check that your site is working after EACH install. Don’t install 5 or 6 plugins, and then check your site. If it isn’t working, then there is no way to tell which plugin was responsible. So take your time and test, test, test as much as you can. Try and limit the number of plugins you install, and delete the plugins that you are not using. Also delete any themes that you aren’t using as well. This can help the possible chances that a hacker can get to your website, but all of this is discussed in another article with this site, when I talk about how to tighten up, or lock down your site.




Wanna Find a Plug-in?

I re-worked this wonderful compilation of plugins I have come across. Some of them will be old, so let me know, and I will try to keep an updated list. My favourites are among these, but I have probably test-driven all of them at some point. I have also left out some of the more obvious ones, and it’s fine to bring my attention to those as well.

So if you have a plug-in you would like to see on the list feel free to post it in the comments section below along with anything else you might have to say. This list will be changing from week to week and I will be adding new information as I get ideas of what to include, and I will be tweeting the changes so make sure you are following me on twitter.

I am also not rating which I think are best at the moment, but it is on the cards when I review this list for plugin additions, so if you see an asterisk, or other form of rating mechanism, then that means I have started doing just that. So check your twitter feed under @barbapplestudio

A really nice resource for searching for plugins based on category, downloads, votes, etc is:

http://wpplugindirectory.org/

“Google Trends for .org Plugins” – Simple tool to compare free WordPress.org plugins side-by-side:

https://bestfreewpplugin.com/

Custom Post Types

Custom Fields

OPTIMIZATION

For Images

For Managing When Plugins or Scripts Load

For Caching

SEO

Google Analytics Dashboard

Sliders

Full Screen Background Sliders

Social Sharing

 Security

 Spam

 Event

 RSS Aggregation / Feed to Post Import

 Frontend Post/Registration

Forms

Backup/clone

Newsletter

Sidebar

This is by no means a definitive list but it will be growing and I will be posting it on twitter for sure.




Ten things I do

These are the ten things that I do when I initially start on a clients website. These can vary and some other thing may be done depending on the scope of the project. Most of these are must haves, and others are dependent on the clients needs. But number 10 is a must and happens on every build. Have fun.

  1. Change admin user name to something else
  2. Install iThemes Security. Run Scan and set it up
  3. Delete unused plugins and themes
  4. Install W3 Total Cache, and configure it.
  5. Install a good backup plugin like BackUp Buddy by or BackWPup, and back up the website.
  6. Change permalinks, and other aspects of the settings tab.
  7. Make sure the theme, and the plugins I use are well supported.
  8. Delete all default pages, posts, and comments
  9. Install SEO by Yoast – if client wants search engine work
  10. Make some tea or coffee.

This is not all I do, but I make sure these 10 things are definitely done.




The wp-config file

wp-config.php is a very important file and was created when you installed your WordPress website. It is the go between from your website to the server. It logs into the server and communicates with it. This will most certainly crash your website if you change anything in here that WordPress does not like. Like its name suggests, config – configuration. So do not play around with this file. If you have to make any changes, do so when you are sure that what you are doing has been tested. As always, make a backup copy of this file before you make any changes. This is another file that you should keep a working copy of, on your local computer.

Keep looking in the “Site Security” category for more post on how to further lock down your site against malicious bots and hackers.

As with every change you make to any file in your WordPress site, make a backup of the original file first, save a local copy, then log out of the admin back end, and log back in again to make sure everything works. Now go to  your website front end to make sure that you and the rest of the web can get to your website.




Limit Logins

This is a great plugin and does exactly what it says it will do. When you go to install it, you will most definitely notice that it hasn’t been updated in a while but don’t worry about that in this plugins particular case. It really doesn’t do anything that requires updating. I have a warning with this plugin though, if you forget your password, and login the number of times that you specify in its settings, it will lock you out. Even if yoiu use the “change password” option, you will still have to wait the allotted time before it will allow you to log back in again. So bookmark this post if you must because the following solution is the only way to reopen your site.

You will need to be able to FTP to your server, go into the wp-content folder and rename the limit-login-attempts folder. Now go to your wp-admin and login with the new password, or the old one if you finally remembered it, and log back in.

In it’s own words:

“This plugin will limit the number of login attempts possible both through normal login as well as using auth cookies.

By default WordPress allows unlimited login attempts either through the login page or by sending special cookies. This allows passwords (or hashes) to be brute-force cracked with relative ease.

Limit Login Attempts blocks an Internet address from making further attempts after a specified limit on retries is reached, making a brute-force attack difficult or impossible.”




The .htaccess file

As with all of my posts, I will be assuming that you know certain things; like how to FTP a file to your WordPress website. If you do not, search for other posts in this blog that will teach you how to. Just do a search for FTP. This is not a post on how to FTP, just to familiarize yourself with your, htaccess file.

Todays lesson is all about the little known, but always there, .htaccess file. There are a few of these on a WordPress site. The ones that I will be mostly writing about are the one in the root directory and the one that lives in the wp-admin folder of your WordPress install. As I said in other posts I subscribe to a website called www,lynda.com, and this is a great website for learning all things WordPress as well as a plethora of other create softwares. This installment is about “locking down your site,” against intruders, which is a polite way of saying hackers.

Take a few moments to download your, htaccess file and get to know it. If you don’t see it in your root install, have WordPress create one for you. Go to Settings<Permalinks and change the setting in there to reflect “Post name”, then log on to your WordPress site via FTP and you will see a new file there called ,htaccess. Download it and open it in a text editor and see what it has done. Do not use a word processor for this, use notepad or the one that I prefer, notepad+.  It is an Opensource program, therefore free, and cool.

It will read something like this:

# BEGIN WordPress
<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>
RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /
RewriteRule ^index\.php$ – [L]
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d
RewriteRule . /index.php [L]
</IfModule>

# END WordPress

Bear in mind, if there is a .htaccess file already on your server before you change the setting, then it may have different stuff in there. Don’t worry about that, and don’t change anything. Leave it alone. Other plugins will add their 2 cents worth into this file from time to time. This can also be a reason why a site will crash, so you will need to familiarize yourself with this file just in case. As with any other configuration file, always save a copy of the old file on your server before you make any changes and download this file to your computer as well. Again, always save a copy of the old file on your server before you make any changes and download this file to your computer as well.

I use the convention daydateyear.htaccess to rename the old file. You can use whatever convention you want, but this means that I have several copies of my .htaccess files that worked before I ever made changes.

Periodically download and take a look at this file especially after you install a plugin to see if any changes have been made, just for your reference. Some plugins won’t use it and some will.




Securing your WordPress website

I thought this article was going to be a little further down the line, but something happened yesterday that pushed the timeline up a month or 2. I was working vigorously on getting BarbApple studios up to speed, you know the drill: website with matching Fackbook, and Twitter page, when the unthinkable happened. My servers went down, and the explanation I got was “Our server thought there was too much activity on my site, logging in and out, branded it as  malicious activity and we shut you down.” This might not have been an issue, but I tried to log in like 7 times, and they couldn’t figure out what the issue was.

WordPress was allowing me to change the admin password, but not allowing me to log in. After a day of this nonsense, and back and forth with tech support, it hit us both at the same time. I had a plug installed by BWS plugins called ‘Limit Attempts,’ and that’s what kept me logged out. So when the servers came back online, I was blacklisted from my work computer, and the tech that was helping me also got blacklisted. We went about it 2 different ways, and got the same result, we were able to log back in again.

I had the idea of going to phpmyadmin and deleting the records in the plugin table, but thought that was a bit rash, so instead I FTP’d to my site and just deleted the plugins folder. That might be considered rash anyway, although at the same time my tech deleted the records from the database using phpmyadmin. I don’t know which had the desired effect or both, had the desired effect, but I am back. I think his method might have worked fine, but I’d like to think I would have gotten a plugin missing error, and would be allowed in anyway, as this has happened before. So there you are, the beginning of a post on how to secure your WordPress website. This will be part 1) of 2) I think, because I want to do this properly. I am going to discuss the types of things you need to stop, how to stop them, and the reputable plugins that will help. So stay tuned.

WordPress will not crash your website, but plugins and themes will. WordPress, as I have said before, is one of the most stable web environments out there at the moment. When people complain about WordPress crashing, what they usually mean is that it had crashed due to a plugin being bad or in need of updating, or a theme that stopped working. WordPress itself is as stable as it gets on the world wide web.

BACK UP YOUR SITE!

This is the most important thing I can tell you to do. Do not assume that the place you are hosting has it covered. Whilst they may do, they could charge you extra money for a restore, and they may not get the restore exactly as you want it. Do it yourself, because WordPress has made it so simple. There are many plugins that will do the job adequately, but the one that I use for all my sites is the plugin BackWPup by Pento. It has been around forever and just does what it says it is going to do. So check that out in the plugins section of my blog, as it is one of my favorites.

Administrator Log in

Do not use admin, user, test, or administrator as the main log in user name. When you think about it, they aren’t really user names. These are the first names a hacker will attack, and it means that all they have to get now is the password.

Longer passwords are better: You don’t have to produce intricate passwords, but long ones – like sentences. People think they have to have longer cryptic passwords, but they forget them. Longer is better in this case, and the chances that you remember it will be better.

If you are the administrator of your WordPress site, create another user account with editor privileges to post to your own blog, so that you are not always logging in as an administrator. This way there is less of a chance of being key-logged when you are using your website. The admin account you set up should be used for admin purposes only, and this is a good thing to teach your clients also because there is more of a chance of them just posting to their sites than administering to it. This is a tricky one for me because I admin so many sites, that I am admining more than actually posting but your average client will not.

Update your WordPress

Always update your WordPress core, plugins, and your themes whenever they are due. Don’t wait a few weeks or even days to do this. The need updated for a reason, so go ahead and do it. You will only make things worse if you don’t. Sometimes after I update the WordPress core, I log out and relog back in again to see if anything else has changed in the update department, such as plugins or themes. This may not be necessary, but it is a habit I have gotten into over the years. I just know that I have left updates for a while and crashed my website a few times. There was one time I remember I had to do a full re-install because I didn’t update.




My favorite plugins

These are just a few of my favorites that I put on most of my sites. This changes from time to time as new ones come out or old ones get better, and that’s the fun of it. If you have a professional site, do not play with the plugins. Get them working, and leave them alone. Update them when they need to be updated and get familiar with their tech support. Install a localhost web-server on a local computer, easy to do these days, and play around there. Or you can get another domain just for playing and testing your plugins before you deploy them to your regular site. As a developer, that’s what I do. I have a few online sites and a localhost server that I have broken quite a few times with lame plugins. Just have fun!

Must Installs

These are the plugins that I install right off the bat on client websites. Most of them are security plugins, but some will be ones that allow me to do things faster when I am called to update or repair a client site. The plugins below will have “a must install” right after the plugin title

 

WordPress SEO – By Team Yoast – a must install

Love this plugin and it is a must have, but there is a learning curve with this, and this is where my yerly subscription to lynda.com comes in handy. I can learn from the best in there.

The first true all-in-one SEO solution for WordPress, including on-page content analysis, XML sitemaps and much more.

iThemes Security – by iThemes

Maybe it is because I know the developer, maybe it’s because it’s a great plugin or a combination of both, but I love this plugin. It covers a lot of bases when it comes to WordPress website security, and gives me peace of mind for my website. It isn’t the only thing I have installed but it is a must and a first security install for me on a clients site. In their own words:

iThemes Security shows you a list of things to do to make your site more secure with a simple way to turn options on or off. We’ve simplified these steps and provided descriptions of each action so you know exactly what’s happening on your site. You shouldn’t have to be a security pro to use a security plugin. And isn’t that the point?

iThemes Sync – by iThemes

This is an awesome unobtrusive plugin to help you keep track of all of your theme and plugin updates. Easy to install and configure which is a plus for me. In their own words:

It’s important to keep your WordPress sites updated, both for the security of your site and to take advantage of the latest features and improvements of your themes and plugins.

Updates to WordPress core and any plugins or themes installed on your sites can happen pretty frequently. And if you’re managing multiple WordPress sites, keeping them all updated can take up a lot of your valuable time.

iThemes Sync is an easy way to manage updates for all your WordPress sites from one place. Instead of logging in to each site individually, you have one place to view and install available updates.


 

NOT Must installs

WP Google Authenticator – By Google

Like the World of Warcraft authenticator from Blizzard. You will need to install the app for you phone so that you can generate the auth code. This might not be a good idea if you are allow user registration because many client smay not have the savvy to be able to use the phone authenticator. There is a lot t it. I locked myself out attempting to set it up on my live test site. As a matter of fact I am locked out as we speak for half hour. Hence i decided to update this article

Dynamic Widgets – By Qurl

Dynamic Widgets gives you full control on which pages a widget will display. It lets you dynamically show or hide widgets on WordPress pages.

No Page Comment – By Seth Alling

A plugin that uses javascript to disable comments by default on posts, pages and/or custom post types, but leave them enabled on others, while still giving you the ability to individually set them on a page or post basis.

Hide Title – By Randall Runnels

Allows authors to hide the title tag on single pages and posts via the edit post screen.

AddThis Follow Widget – By The AddThis Team

Generate followers for your social networks and track what pages are generating the most followers

Share Buttons by AddToAny –  By AddToAny

Share buttons for your pages, including AddToAny’s universal sharing button, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, WhatsApp and many more.

Limit Login Attempts – By Johan Eenfeldt – a must install

This plugin will limit the number of login attempts possible both through normal login as well as using auth cookies. By default WordPress allows unlimited login attempts either through the login page or by sending special cookies. This allows passwords (or hashes) to be brute-force cracked with relative ease. Limit Login Attempts blocks an Internet address from making further attempts after a specified limit on retries is reached, making a brute-force attack difficult or impossible.

Editors note: I disabled this plugin. Maybe it was just me, but it was a pain logging in to some of the websites I manage. As soon as I added other security plugins, this became obsolete, believe it or not there is such a thing as too much security.