“The Famous WordPress 5-Minute Install” was great. Unfortunately, today it can cause serious security problems. The typical scenario is to upload core files to your host, open the installer, and it is done in a few minutes. During these few minutes is your installer publicly available to everyone. If the attacker is speedy enough, he can finish the installation on behalf of you, modify your installation and revert it back to hide the fingerprints.
This is happening right now on a big scale!
The attacker uses the Certificate Transparency Log to find new WordPress installations. It works because you usually generate the SSL certificate when you set up a hosting space. When the certificate is issued, the record appears in the public log. You can browse the log with crt.sh for example.
So the attacker automated the CT log parsing and is trying to find public available WP installers.
I prepared a honeypot to diagnose this issue. I configured empty VPS on Digital Ocean and created the installation of 2 WP sites. For the first one, I issued an SSL certificate. The second one used HTTP only. I left the installer publicly available on both sites.
It takes only 4 minutes from the certificate issue to abuse the installer (but in some cases, the attacker managed to do it in under 1 minute).
The attacker uses https://www.ivpn.net/ to hide his activity.
The HTTP site was untouched – it proves the attacker uses CT log.
What did the attacker do with the WP installation?
The attacker runs the installer with DB credentials of his own DB server and a unique table prefix to distinguish multiple sites.
The key is the request /wp-admin/setup-config.php?step=2.
WordPress installer tries to connect to the database, and if it is a success, it writes the DB credentials into wp-config.php. As you can see, an attacker only needs one single request to inject his DB credentials. That is an enormous attack potential!
There are no tables with that random prefix in the attacker’s DB. Because of that, the WP installer became available again for the site owner, but the installer skips the DB details step and uses the one from wp-config. The result is a fully functional site, but it uses a foreign database – the attacker owns all your data and can log in to your site anytime!
I talked to a few administrators of affected sites, and several of them noticed that the step of entering database details was missing during the installation. However, they thought that the hosting did this step for them.
I diagnosed some affected sites and found PHP files with webshells in the uploads folder, among core files and modified core files (wp-traceback.php in my case). The attacker also installed WP File Manager on some sites and some fake plugins (example).
Various webshell uploaded to the affected website:
There is a great risk of reinfection when you switch to the real DB server. All user and DB passwords must therefore be considered compromised.
After a few hours, the attacker changed the admin password to 4144e097d2fa7a491cec2a7a4322f2bc (AC after the md5 cracking) and installed a malicious fake plugin.
After another few hours, he used the backdoor from that plugin. The subsequent process was no different from common malware infection. Nothing special here.
One of the malicious files sends an email with the URL of webshell to the attacker. I’m not sure if it isn’t “backdoor” in “backdoor”.
Another malicious “utility” uploaded to the server was a mailer script to send spam.
What I did with the attacker’s DB?
From modified wp-config, I gain access to the attacker’s database and I’ve researched it thoroughly, of course.
There were many hacked sites in the attacker’s database, and the number is still growing by tens by the hour.
I made a simple Python script periodically parses the attacker’s database and looks for new sites there. When a new site appears, I get the admin’s email and send him a notification about their compromised site.
I think this method is more beneficial than removing the data from the database and warning the attacker – it is easy for him to change the password or DB server entirely.
How to prevent this issue?
The first recommendation is to keep in mind that something like this is even possible. It is not WordPress specific issue, but WP is a juicy target.
It would be best if you didn’t leave the installer publicly accessible. You can limit the access via .htaccess, for example (there are many ways how to do it – the example for .htaccess placed in the /wp-admin folder here). It is also possible to restrict access with a mu-plugin. Our example:
The benefit of mu-plugin is the independence on .htaccess (e.g. Nginx); you cannot change anything after installation.
You can also choose a different method to install WordPress. I really love WP CLI. I wouldn’t say I like one-click installers provided by web hosting companies. It is because lack of transparency (sometimes they don’t use unique security keys, install unwanted stuff, etc.), but it is better to use them if you don’t have any other option than leave the installer accessible.
It can also help to prepare wp-config with the correct DB data before uploading WordPress to the hosting. But it doesn’t prevent an attacker from completing the installation and setting up their admin account; however, it is much more noticeable.
If you are webhoster, you can block POST requests to /wp-admin/setup-config.php?step=2 without a referrer. It is really easy to bypass that, but it can block the most primitive attempts.
I also made a Proof of Concept mu-plugin to allow only particular DB hosts via Environmental variables or special configuration file wp-dbhosts.php.
The second approach is to modify the installer to require a special “install key”. This key could, for example, be generated in the install-key.php file in step 2. In this file, the user could read the key from FTP.
You can find the Proof of Concept here.
What if I was affected?
If you were affected by this, the best thing to do is to delete your new site entirely and start again. You cannot be sure what the attacker uploaded to your site, so complete removal is the easiest option.
One of the signs of infection is changed entries to the database in the wp-config.php file. The DB_HOST constant is changed to 184.108.40.206 or another suspicious value.
The attacker got access to your website data, so you should never use your user password again. You also have to change the password to your database.
If you have multiple sites sharing the same hosting space, you may also consider them compromised and need to check them. You can use Wordfence or Sucuri scanner. If you are using Wordfence, use high sensitivity scan mode – it verifies checksums of core files, plugins, and themes, and also scans the file outside of WP.
Keep this on your mind when your next WordPress install 😉.
The attack lasted for a couple of days during which I sent almost 800 notifications. The number of compromised sites continued to grow for several days after the successful exploitation.