Stopping malicious website redirects

In my work as editor of Inside Security’s email newsletter, I am on the lookout for ways that criminals can take advantage of insecure Internet infrastructure. I came across this article yesterday that I thought I would share with you and also take some time to explain the concept of the malicious redirect. This is how the bad guys turn something that was designed to be helpful into an exploit.

A redirect is when you put some HTML code on a web page because that URL is no longer in service, but you don’t want to lose that visitor. The most likely situation is that someone could have clicked on an old link and gotten to that location. So you direct them to the appropriate place on your website. Simple right?

Now the bad guys have used this, but instead of being helpful, they use the redirect code to point you to a place that contains some malware, in the hopes that you will not notice that the new web page is a trap and in an instant, your computer is now infected with something. Surprise! Sadly, this happens more and more.

In a post on Sucuri’s blog, researchers describe several ways the malicious redirect can happen. One way is by leveraging configuration files such as .htacess or .ini files. These are files associated with web servers that control all sorts of behavior and are usually hidden from ordinary browsing. Usually, your website security prevents folks from messing with these files, but if you made setup errors or if you aren’t paying attention, the configuration files can be exposed to attackers. Another way is by having an attacker mess with your DNS settings so that visitors to your site end up going somewhere else. How does some attacker gain access to your DNS servers? Typically, it is through a compromised administrative account password. Do you really know who in your organization has access to this information? Probably more people than you realize. When was the last time you changed this password anyway?

My office is in a condo complex that has several doors to a public alley. Each of the doors has a combination lock and all of the doors have the same combination. A year or so ago, the board was discussing that it might be time to change the combination because many people – by design – know what this combination is. This is just good security practice. Now the analogy isn’t quite sound – by design a lot of people have to know this number, otherwise no one can get out to the alley to take their trash out – but still, it was a good idea to regularly change the access code.

Neither of these exploit methods is new: they have been happening almost since the web became popular, sadly. So it is important that if you run websites and don’t want your reputation ruined or have some criminal spreading malware that you at least understand what can happen and make sure that you are protected.

But there is another way redirects can happen: by an attacker grabbing an expired domain name and leveraging its associated WordPress plug-in. Since a lot of you run WordPress sites, I want to take a moment to describe this attack method.

  • Attacker finds a dormant plug-in on the WordPress catalog. Give the thousands of plug-ins, there are lots of them that haven’t been updated in several years.
  • Check the underlying domain name that is used for the plug-in. If it isn’t active, purchase and register the name.
  • Set up a website for this domain that contains malicious Javascript code for the redirect.
  • Change the code on your plug-in to serve up the malware whenever anyone uses it.
  • Hope no one notices and sit back as the Internet spread your nasty business far and wide.

Moral of the story: Don’t use outdated plug-ins, and limit the potential for attacks by deleting unused plug-ins from your WordPress servers anyway. Make use of a tool such as WordFence to protect your blogs. Update your blog with the latest versions of WordPress and the latest plug-in versions too while you are at it.

When I first started using WordPress more than a decade ago, I went plug-in crazy and loaded up more than a dozen different ones for all sorts of enhancements to my blog’s appearance and functions. Now I am more careful, and only run the ones that I absolutely need. Situations such as this malicious redirect are a good reason why you should follow a similar strategy.

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