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BetterWPSecurity – a great WordPress plugin but proceed with caution

February 19th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments
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I’ve recently installed the BetterWPSecurity WordPress plugin, and found that while it’s very useful and does increase the security of WordPress it can also break your site.

Ah, Monday morning and the start of my three months paternity leave looking after my six month old son Zach. During his morning nap I logged into my blog to work on an article and noticed that my blog wasn’t loading articles correctly even though the home page worked just fine. Investigating further and looking at my site stats (I use both the Jetpack plugin and Google Analytics) clearly showed that something broke at the start of the weekend – I had nearly no traffic all weekend. Having just referred a colleague to my site for some information and on my first day of paternity leave (ie less time on my hands, not more as some may think) this was definitely not ideal timing!

My first step was to check my logs for information, in this case the BetterWPSecurity log for changed files. This revealed that the .htaccess file in the root directory was changed late on Friday night at 11:35pm – and I knew that wasn’t me as I was tucked up in bed. My first thought was a hack as the .htaccess file permits access to the site but there was no redirect or site graffiti and the homepage still worked so that didn’t seem likely. I logged in via SSH to have a look at the .htaccess file but didn’t see anything obvious although I’m no WordPress expert.


My priority was to get the blog working again so I tried restoring a copy of the changed file from the previous week’s backup (made via the BackWPUp plugin) only to find the backup wasn’t useable. Bad plugin! Luckily I’m a believer in ‘belt and braces’ and I knew my hosting company, EvoHosting, also took backups. I logged a call with them and within the hour they’d replied with the contents of the file from a week earlier. Sure enough the file had been changed but looking at the syntax it appeared to be an error rather than malicious hack.

My .htaccess file when the site was working;

# BEGIN WordPress

RewriteEngine On

RewriteBase /

RewriteRule ^index\.php$ - [L]

RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f

RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d

RewriteRule . /index.php [L]

# END WordPress

My .htaccess file after the suspicious change;

# BEGIN Better WP Security

Order allow,deny

Allow from all

Deny from 88.227.227.32

# END Better WP Security

RewriteBase /

RewriteRule ^index\.php$ - [L]

RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f

RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d

RewriteRule . /index.php [L]

</IfModule>

# END WordPress

I backed up the suspicious copy of the file (for future reference, ie writing this blogpost), restored the original et voila – the blog was working again. Step one complete, now to find the root cause…

Part of any diagnostic process is the question ‘what’s changed?’ and I had a suspicion that BetterWPSecurity could be the culprit as I’d only installed it a few weeks earlier. There was also the obvious issue of the new code in the .htaccess file which looked to belong to BetterWPSecurity. I checked the site access logs which confirmed my hypothesis – someone had attempted to break into my site and while attempting to block the attacker BetterWPSecurity had mangled my .htaccess file. The logs below have been truncated to remove many of the brute force login attempts (there were plenty more) but note that on the final line (after BetterWPSecurity has blocked the attacker) the HTML return code was 418 (“I’m a teapot”) rather than 200 plus the suspect IP 88.227.227.32 is the same as the one denied in the mangled .htaccess file. Yes, you read that right, “I’m a teapot”! Here’s a full explanation for that April Fool’s error code. :-)

88.227.227.32 - - [15/Feb/2013:23:35:19 +0000] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3017 "http://www.vexperienced.co.uk//wp-login.php" "Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.1; WOW64; rv:2.0.1) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/4.0.1"
88.227.227.32 - - [15/Feb/2013:23:35:19 +0000] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3017 "http://www.vexperienced.co.uk//wp-login.php" "Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.1; WOW64; rv:2.0.1) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/4.0.1"
88.227.227.32 - - [15/Feb/2013:23:35:19 +0000] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3017 "http://www.vexperienced.co.uk//wp-login.php" "Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.1; WOW64; rv:2.0.1) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/4.0.1"
88.227.227.32 - - [15/Feb/2013:23:35:19 +0000] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 200 3017 "http://www.vexperienced.co.uk//wp-login.php" "Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.1; WOW64; rv:2.0.1) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/4.0.1"
88.227.227.32 - - [15/Feb/2013:23:35:19 +0000] "POST /wp-login.php HTTP/1.1" 418 5 "http://www.vexperienced.co.uk//wp-login.php" "Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 6.1; WOW64; rv:2.0.1) Gecko/20100101 Firefox/4.0.1"

So BetterWPSecurity led me to the fault but also caused it. To be fair the plugin does warn you which settings are potentially going to cause issues but I’d assumed that it wouldn’t be me – dangerous things assumptions. I’ve rectified the issue by restricing BetterWPSecurity from altering core system files as shown in the screenshot below;

My blog is fixed and I’m feeling quite chuffed that it was all resolved during a long lunchbreak – not a bad day’s work if I do say so myself! Lesson for today? Take warnings seriously and have multiple backups!

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