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WordPress Plugin Security: What You Need to Know About Protecting Your Website

If you have a website on WordPress, you need to be thinking about WordPress plugin security.

If your website is built with WordPress, it probably has a few plugins installed. Plugins can add useful features and extra functionality to any website. But unfortunately, plugins can also be a risk to your website’s security. If you use WordPress, you need to be aware of WordPress plugin security and the risks involved. If you aren’t, the consequences could be devastating to your business.

Why Most WordPress Websites Use Plugins

Think about how many different features a website can have. Embedded videos, embedded maps to give you directions, pop-ups, email sign-ups, blogs, online stores, sections that you have to log in to access … if you had the time, you could probably come up with hundreds or even thousands of different things a website could do. Now imagine a website with the ability to do every single one of those thousands of things. Not only would it be incredibly slow, think about how hard it would be to find the one setting you need if there are thousands of options!

Plugins make it so that no website has to have all of these options. WordPress provides the basic functionality for a website to run. For additional features, you can install plugins. There are plugins available to let your website do almost anything a website can do. But the key is you only install what you need. If you need an email sign-up form, you can install a plugin for that. If you don’t need an ecommerce store, don’t install any ecommerce plugins.

WordPress plugins can enhance security or speed, change your website’s appearance, integrate your site with other marketing tools, add ecommerce functionality, make your site more accessible, optimize it for search engines, and more. By only installing the plugins you need, you can make an amazing site without the complication of extra features you don’t need.

How WordPress Plugins can be a Security Threat

The wide variety of plugins available is great when you’re trying to build an awesome website. But it’s also what causes WordPress plugin security risks. Most plugins are not developed by WordPress, but by third-party developers. Some developers may be really good at WordPress plugin security. But there’s no guarantee that all of them are. Some plugins get regular updates with security fixes to protect your website. Others have never been updated.

Plugins add features and functionality to your website by adding additional code. There’s a slim chance that that code could be malicious. But there’s another possibility that’s much more likely: The code is not malicious, but it’s not secure. It leaves an opening for a hacker to access your website and add their own malicious code – or even take over your website entirely.

Attacks are Happening Now

Some things are dangerous, but are extremely unlikely to happen to you. This is not one of those situations. The risks are real, and these attacks are happening now. Here are just a few examples of recent major vulnerabilities:

  • In April 2023, a plugin that let site owners run PHP codes on their WordPress site was exploited. The plugin hadn’t been updated in eleven years. Hackers used the outdated security to gain admin access and add a “back door” to let other hackers into the site and get admin access.
  • In June 2023, hackers found a huge vulnerability in a plugin that let people make their WordPress sites into membership sites. The vulnerability let people who weren’t even logged into the site become website admins and take control of the website.
  • In September 2022, hackers found a weakness in a plugin designed to make file management and website backups easier. They were able to download every single file, including private or sensitive information, from any website that used this plugin.
  • Also in September 2022, a zero-day flaw in a plugin that helped manage themes and other plugins let hackers create new admin users. These admin users could then access or change anything on the site – or even entirely take over the site.

These are just a few of the biggest and most well-known attacks from WordPress plugin security issues. And some of these plugins are pretty popular! Some estimates suggested hundreds of thousands of sites may be at risk. If you’re not paying attention to WordPress plugin security, one of those could be yours.

Why You Should Care About WordPress Plugin Security

Hopefully we’ve convinced you by know that there are some real risks with WordPress plugins. But should you care? Even if the threat of a hacker completely taking over your website and locking you out doesn’t scare you, there are some great reasons to care about WordPress plugin security anyway.

First is the risk of data breaches. Data breaches that expose your customers’ information are devastating to a business, and they can even result in a business going under. If your customers’ data is exposed in a breach and you didn’t take reasonable security measures, you could be held liable.

There’s also risk to your site itself. Weak security could let hackers add malware, phishing links, or other malicious code without your knowledge. When search engines notice, they put up a warning that your site is malicious. This is known as “blacklisting.” Not only does it reduce your website traffic, it can damage your reputation.

It’s also significantly easier (and cheaper!) to make sure your website is secure than to undo the damage after a breach, hack, or attack. Prevention often involves just a bit of alertness and monitoring, and potentially paying a small monthly fee for additional security. Professional malware removal can cost thousands – not to mention the damage to your traffic, revenue, and customer trust.

Not paying attention to your WordPress plugin security can leave your site open to hacking, cyber attacks, and other dangers that could damage or even destroy your site or business. Taking some steps towards better security reduces your risk and minimizes potential damage.

How to Protect Yourself and Your Website

There are steps you can take to improve your WordPress plugin security and reduce the risk to your website and business. Here are a few steps you can take right now.

Check Your Existing Plugins

Check the plugins already installed on your website against tools like WPScan’s Plugin Vulnerabilities List. Lists like these will tell you if any of the plugins installed on your WordPress site have any known security risks. If they do, uninstall the plugin until a patch is available.

Keep Your Plugins Updated

When someone discovers a security risk in a plugin, the way a developer fixes it is with a patch. This patch is put out as an update to the plugin. By making sure your plugins are always updated to the newest version, you can be sure you have the latest security fixes.

Delete Plugins You Don’t Use

WordPress has two options for what to do when you don’t want to use a plugin you installed. You can deactivate it, which “turns off” its functionality on your site but keeps it installed. Or you can delete it, which entirely removes it from your website. Deactivated plugins may not be doing what they were designed to do on your site, but they can still be used to run malicious code. If you’re not going to use it, it’s safer not to keep it.

Only Download Reputable Plugins

If you need a new plugin for your site, take some steps to ensure you download one that’s as safe as possible. Only download from the WordPress Plugin Repository or a third-party marketplace you trust. And look at the plugin before you download it. Never download anything with an average rating of less than four stars. Also avoid ones that were last updated more than a year ago – that means that the developer probably isn’t working on it anymore, so problems likely won’t be fixed. Check the number of active installations, too. A lower number doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad, but the higher the number, the more trusted the plugin is. You can also look at a handful of the most recent reviews and see if there are any commonalities. If a lot of people are complaining about the same thing, you’ll probably have that issue, too.

If you want to be extra safe, you can also check the changelog, documentation, and support. The changelog will tell you what was fixed in the most recent update. The documentation will show you what resources are available if you need help. And by looking at the support options, you can see if the developer is actively responding to people who need help, or if bug reports and complaints go ignored.

Install a Good Security Plugin

It may seem counterintuitive to recommend a WordPress plugin to deal with WordPress plugin security. But having a trusted, security-focused plugin installed can be very helpful. A plugin with security-focused developers is likely to find and fix its own security vulnerabilities quickly. And having this type of plugin installed can help you monitor other plugins for issues or even protect you from attacks. WPScan, for example, has a plugin that scans your other plugins for known vulnerabilities. And Wordfence is a plugin that protects your site from hackers exploiting those vulnerabilities.

The Bottom Line on WordPress Plugin Security

If your site is built on WordPress, plugins are great. They can provide amazing functionality and make your site capable of all kinds of awesome things. But like all technology, they come with risks. These risks can be vulnerable or outdated code in the plugin itself. Or they can even be a supply chain issue, where the plugin uses another vendor or service that is vunerable or has outdated code that hackers can use to compromise the vendor, the plugin, and ultimately your website. These risks are actively being exploited, and they can have huge consequences. It’s important to take steps to make sure the plugins installed on your WordPress website are secure and your site, your business, and your and your customers’ data is protected.

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