The creators of any website bear the moral and legal responsibility for it during its entire existence. Moreover, few people know that if a corporate web server gets hacked, it’s not only the company and its customers that may suffer; often, a hacked site becomes a platform for launching new cyberattacks, with its owners not even being aware of it.
Why websites get hacked
A website hack can be part of a larger cyberattack, or a standalone operation. By “hack”, we mean making changes to the target site — not to be confused with a DDoS attack. If your company finds itself in the crosshairs of hackers, their goals are usually to:
- Exert pressure on the victim organization as part of a ransomware attack, including by making the hack known to customers and partners;
- Download valuable information from the site, for example, customer contact details stored in a database;
- Distract IT and InfoSec teams from a more serious data theft or sabotage attack occurring at the same time;
- Cause reputational damage.
That said, very often hackers don’t need your site in particular. They’ll happily make do with any reputable site they can sneak malicious content onto. Once that’s achieved, they can populate the site with phishing pages, links to spam resources, and pop-up ads. Basically, it turns into a cybercriminal tool. At the same time, the main sections of the site may be unaffected. Customers and employees visiting the home page won’t notice anything different. The malicious content is tucked away in new subfolders to which victims get lured through direct links.
How websites get hacked
Website hacks are normally carried out through vulnerabilities in server applications: web servers, databases, or content management systems and their add-ons. Around 43% of all websites on the internet run on WordPress, so it’s no surprise that hackers pay special attention to this content management system. Vulnerabilities are discovered in WordPress and thousands of add-ons for it regularly, and not all authors get around to fixing their plug-ins. And besides, not all users promptly install updates for their sites.
Attackers can exploit a vulnerability to upload to the web server a so-called web shell; that is, additional files and scripts allowing them to manage site content while bypassing standard administration tools. Next, they place malicious content on the site in subfolders, taking pains not to affect the main pages of the legitimate site.
Another common hacking scenario is to guess the administrator password. This is possible if the administrator uses weak passwords, or the same password on different web resources. In this way, cybercriminals can place malicious content by means of standard administration tools, creating new users on the site, as well as additional subsections or pages. However, this increases the likelihood of detection, so even in this case, attackers prefer to install their own backdoor in the shape of a web shell.
Damage from website hacking
In case of a large case targeted attack, the given company immediately suffers financial and reputational damage. As for opportunistic attacks, the harm is indirect. Website maintenance costs can increase due to spam content and its views. At the same time, the site’s SEO reputation drops, so it gets fewer visitors from search engines. The site may even be flagged as malicious, in which case its traffic drops catastrophically. In practice, however, hackers may go for abandoned sites, so issues with traffic are of no relevance.
How websites get abandoned
The internet has long turned into a website graveyard. According to statistics, there are more than 1.1 billion websites in total, but 82% of them are not updated or maintained. In the case of corporate websites, a number of scenarios can be the cause:
- A company ceases to operate, but its website is published on free hosting and keeps running;
- The only employee who had access to the site leaves the given small business. Unless the owners take action, the site will remain frozen for months or even years;
- A company rebrands or merges, but keeps the old website “temporarily” for customers. The revamped entity then gets a brand-new site, and the “temporary” old one is gradually forgotten;
- A dedicated site is launched for a marketing campaign, product line, blog, or side project. When the project is over, the site is no longer updated, but it’s not shut down either.
Signs of website hacking
Since the main pages are often left untouched by hackers, it can be difficult to tell if your site has been compromised. But there are some pointers: the site is running slower than usual; traffic has sharply increased or decreased for no apparent reason; new links or banners have appeared out of nowhere; problems with control panel access; new folders, files, or users can be seen in the control panel. Still, the most obvious sign is if others start bombarding you with complaints about malicious content on your site. To properly diagnose the situation, you need to study the web server logs, but this task is better entrusted to experts. Like pest control, it takes experience to get rid of an infestation — which here means removing the web shell and other backdoors from the site.
How to guard against website hacking
Even small companies without a large cybersecurity budget can implement simple measures that greatly reduce the chances of getting hacked:
- Set long, strong passwords for the administration section of your site, and enable two-factor authentication. Each administrator must have their own password;
- Never allow just one person to have access to the site (unless the company has just one employee, naturally). Remember to revoke access when employees leave;
- Make sure to keep updated all software components of the site, including the operating system, web server, databases, content management system, and add-ons. Install updates as soon as they are released. If your company lacks the time or expertise, better to use professional website hosting where security is in the hands of a dedicated team. For example, for WordPress there are specialized secure hosting platforms, such as WP Engine;
- Maintain a registry of all company websites. It should list every site created, even temporary ones set up, say, for a one-month ad campaign;
- Each site in the registry should have its software components updated regularly, even if there’s no business need to update the content;
- If the site is no longer needed, and the resources are lacking to update it, better to close it down in a tidy manner. Save the data to an archive, then terminate your hosting account. If necessary, you can also cancel the domain delegation. Another way to shut down a subsite is to remove all content from it, disable any software add-ons like WordPress, and set up redirection to the company’s main site.