WordPress is a popular target for hackers because every website has something to offer them, and the returns on attacks are high.
WordPress is the most popular CMS in the world, and a popular target for hackers too. The scale of the problem may make it seem like the hacks occur randomly and for random reasons. In reality, every website has something to offer hackers. The exact nature of the payoff also depends on the intentions of the hackers.
Hackers can be grouped into three categories, depending on the purpose behind their attacks:
White-hat hackers usually test a website or a computer system for vulnerabilities. They do not have malicious intent, and disclose vulnerabilities responsibly.
In the WordPress community, white hat hackers are either a part of a web security team, or are developers within the community who contribute by discovering vulnerabilities and helping protect the community against such risks.
Hacktivists, (who are ‘activists’ acting by means of hacking) target websites mostly to bring awareness to socio-political issues, but the means they pursue for these ends are questionable. This is why it’s difficult to categorise what they do. Most of the time, hacktivists deface websites, or publish sensitive information.
Examples for hacktivist defacing websites range from Anonymous’ hack of the Phillipine Comelec that asks questions, to the defacement of the ISIS website with ads for performance-enhancing drugs. Hacktivists could also publish sensitive information. Examples of such attacks include the Panama Papers leak, and the hack of the CIA and FBI websites that released officers’ personal information and put them in danger.
Since the classification of what hacktivists have to gain, and the means they use to achieve their ends can fall in gray areas, we’re going to exclude hacktivism from this article.
Black-hat hackers, who hack websites indiscriminately, purely because of more ‘materialistic’ gains. They exploit vulnerabilities to their own ends. Any website can be targeted by these hackers, since they are not looking to test a specific system for vulnerabilities, nor do they want to further a socio-political agenda.
What Black-hat hackers can gain from hacking websites
Black-hat hackers could gain one of three things from hacking websites:
- Access to resources
In terms of technical know-how, and the scale of the reputation they seek, black-hat hackers could be ‘script kiddies’, or ‘experienced hackers’.
‘Script kiddies’ depend on tools to perform hacks. While the scale of the havoc they wreak can vary in degree, they usually hack websites to be accepted, or to gain reputation among their peers. They usually don’t have criminal intent. However, the more they learn, the more they could move towards higher levels of experience and reputation.
Garnering reputation among other black-hat hackers depends not only on the technical know-how they have, but also on the damage they have the ability to wreak independently. This is when/why they move away from readily-available tools, and craft malicious code of their own that can bypass usual security measures on websites.
‘Experienced’ hackers look to earn a more ‘professional’ kind of reputation. You might know that there are black markets for the sale of illegal goods, but there are similar establishments for cybercrime too. One such black market/forum, was Darkode. Hackers have profiles on these websites and are ranked. These hackers look to earn higher ranks so that their ‘customers’ will pay more for their services, and their work will be recognized more.
How high a hacker’s rank is, on cybercrime forums, depends on:
- The number of sites they’ve hacked.
- How proficient they’ve been (the difficulty of the hack).
- The reputation of the sites they’ve hacked.
- How satisfied their customers are with their ‘service’.
In short, even if your website has great security, it’s better for them: they get a better ranking if they succeed in hacking your site.
For example, if your site had tight security, and a hacker successfully retrieve contact information of all your customers, they only garner reputation and have no use for the information afterward. They could go ahead and publish it on the cybercrime forum so other hackers could use the information to send spam mail to your users, send them downloadable malicious code, or send them mails crafted for phishing.
Access to resources
The resources on your WordPress site include your site’s database, the server it’s hosted on, as well as the users and visitors to your site. Black hat hackers hack your website in order to gain access to these resources. Attackers have a number of ways that they could exploit your site’s resources:
- They could plant malicious code on your site to do anything they need to do, without the action getting traced back to them. An example of this would be that of hackers planting malicious code on your server to send their spam mail to your site’s visitors. This would not only get your server blacklisted by mail servers, but also could lead to your WordPress site getting blacklisted by search engines (since it has malware).
- They could use your site to perform Black Hat SEO practices that allow them to hijack your site’s traffic and redirect it to their own websites, or their customers’ websites. A common type of attack on WordPress sites that uses this technique is the WordPress Pharma hack.)
- They might use malicious code on your site to trick the visitors of your site into downloading malicious software to their computers.
- Cross-site scripting attacks could be used to steal cookies from your site’s visitors and use their credentials.
- They could use your server as a bot in a DDoS attack.
- They could manipulate your site to trick users into entering sensitive information that could be used for phishing.
- They could use ‘ransomware’, which is malicious software that doesn’t allow you access to your resources, your website, or important files on your website unless you pay up. Ransomware keeps popping up in tech news because of technology’s progression into the Internet of things (smart home appliances that can be connected to the internet). In the context of websites, ransomware could be used to either lock you out of your site, or encrypt all the data on your website until you meet the hacker’s demands. If you don’t give in to the hacker’s demands, they could keep all the data from your WordPress site to themselves until you do, or worse, delete it all. The only sensible way to protect yourself from such an attack, is to have a reliable WordPress backup solution that has updated backups of your site.
As any website owner knows, information is probably the most important thing on a website. From your site’s data to your visitor’s data, all of the information on your website is unique to you, and is hence valuable.
Hackers could hack your site to retrieve information that belongs to your site’s visitors, such as their personal information(which includes contact information, photos, medical records and other information about their identity), or financial information.
Hackers could use this information in the following ways:
- They could use it for their own purposes (such as to send spam mail). Sending spam mail from your website’s server could get it blacklisted by search engines, and other mail servers.
- They could publish sensitive information from your site.
- They could sell it to others looking for this kind of information.
- They could also retrieve confidential information from your WordPress site (such as information about your investors), and ask you to pay a ransom to make sure it isn’t published, or sold.
Publishing sensitive information
Sensitive information on your website doesn’t have to just be related to the financial information … it could be anything that is specific to just your site, such as the personal information of your site’s users (like their email addresses), that could be used in line with malicious intent (to fulfill a job request, to damage the reputation of the company whose information they publish, to help other hackers send spam).
For example, a hacker could publish your users’ email addresses, to ruin your establishment’s reputation and the trust your customers have in you.
Selling sensitive information online
This is another dangerous way hackers target the information on your site.
While some hackers sell personal information of celebrities online (like in the case of Pippa Middleton’s iCloud photos that the hacker attempted to sell), in the past few years, a number of medical websites have been targeted.
This is because social security numbers, medical and healthcare information could prove to be more valuable in terms of identity theft than even financial credentials.
Hackers who sell financial information are in a race against time; they only get the best price for their hard work as long as the credentials are recent, and valid. If the people whose information was stolen, blocked their cards or switched banks, they don’t get paid. However, with identity-theft, the validity of the crime is much longer; and the payoffs for the buyer is considerably higher.
The parties that buy this information could use it to:
- Create online loan applications
- Create applications online for credit cards
- Apply for prescription drugs
- Create fake IDs
This poses a serious risk for any website, but especially for those that store any sort of user-information.
With reasons/aims like these, it’s no wonder that hackers continue to do what they do. They know that there is no such thing as a secure website, so any website can be hacked, and used to any end. The returns for them on hacking websites is high. This is why hackers who seek to obtain information or access to resources on your site make sure to keep their tracks hidden. They do this in order to utilise your site for as long as they can, and make sure to leave backdoors in inconspicuous file so that they can always gain access back to your site.
This is why the best way to stay safe is to have a solid disaster recovery plan in place. The prime element in such a plan, would definitely be a WordPress backup solution like BlogVault that is truly reliable, and an intelligent malware scanner+cleaner, like MalCare, that leaves no malicious code behind.