Bad False Positives from Wordfence Security and Quttera Web Malware Scanner WordPress Plugins

We often have people contact us that believe that a claim that their website has been hacked is false because they ran a scanner over and it didn’t find anything. We are not really sure why they don’t ask for the evidence behind the claim and try to see if they can confirm if that is accurate or not instead of running a scanner over the website, but considering they are not doing that it might not be surprising that they are instead doing something that is likely to not produce great results.

One problem is that the even if the scanner is effective at what is attempting to scan for, it may not be able to detect the type of issue that lead to claim that the website is hacked. Let’s say a web host detects a malicious file on the website, well that probably would be be something that a scan of the website’s pages from the outside would never detect.

Another problem is lack of evidence that various scanners are actually effective at what they are attempting to scan for and from our own experience, plenty of evidence that they are not effective. One area where we have seen evidence of that going back many years is with really bad false positives that indicate that these scanners are incredibly crude, so crude in fact that if we weren’t well aware of how bad the security industry is, we would have a hard time believing that they were even occurring. Below are a couple of them in WordPress plugins that we recently ran across that show the current poor state of such tools.

Quttera Web Malware Scanner

The first comes from the plugin Quttera Web Malware Scanner, which has 10,000+ active install according to wordpress.org. In recent thread on the support forum for that someone mentioned getting a false positive for what is quite common code. The plugin will warn when matching “RewriteRule ^(.*)$ h” in a .htaccess file, which would match when do some fairly common rewriting of URLs. Just doing that rewriting is not in any way malicious. The developer’s explanation for that wasn’t that this was a mistake, but that:

We mark it as suspicious because there are multiple malware instances utilizing this technique to steal/redirect traffic from infected websites.

Simply because malware uses common coding isn’t a good reason to flag any usage of it and that will necessarily cause the results of a scanner to be of limited use.

Making it seem like the developer really doesn’t know what they are doing in general, the description for that detection is “Detected suspicious JavaScript redirection”, which makes no sense considering that type of code has nothing to do with JavaScript.

Wordfence Security

The second instance of this involves a much more popular plugin Wordfence Security, which has 2+ million active installs according to wordpress.org, that we have frequently seen people believe is much more capable than it really is (sometimes they ignored evidence right before their eyes to continue to believe that).

A thread on the support forum of the plugin Ultimate Member was recently started with:

Wordfence seems to think there is a malware URL somewhere in the file class-um-mobile-detect.php:

* File contains suspected malware URL: wp-content/plugins/ultimate-member/includes/lib/mobiledetect/class-um-mobile-detect.php

but on comparison, the file’s contents are exactly the same as the latest file offered on https://ultimatemember.com

Can someone comment?

In follow to a question by the developer of the mentioned plugin, the original poster wrote:

I’m using 2.0.23 but as I’ve said the file in question is identical to the one found in the latest version. So as I thought it is a false positive. Maybe Wordfence doubled up on UM after the latest malware exploit.

In reality it was just that Wordfence’s scanner incredibly crude as hinted at by another reply in the thread:

It is caused by the URL: “http://www.vonino.eu/tablets” which was reported to contain malware.

In my file, it’s only mentioned in a comment so I guess it’s safe.

What that is referring to is the following line in the file /wp-content/plugins/ultimate-member/includes/lib/mobiledetect/class-um-mobile-detect.php:

340
// Vonino Tablets - http://www.vonino.eu/tablets

Currently the domain vonino.eu is being flagged by Google as malicious:

That doesn’t in any way make a file that includes the domain in a commented out line in the code, which can’t run, in any way malicious. If the developer’s of Wordfence Security cared at all they could easily avoid that false positive, but considering they can get away with much worse it isn’t surprising they wouldn’t care about that. That also leaves more responsible plugin developers to have to deal with the fallout from those false claims.

The Developer of Cerber Security, Antispam & Malware Scan Gives Out Bad Advice To Push Their Plugin

When it comes the security industry around WordPress unfortunately there are many people that either don’t know what they are talking about or are intentionally peddling bad information to push products and services that provide little to no protection, while making things harder for companies that are actually doing the hard work to actually improve security.

We often run into examples of this even when we aren’t looking for them. We ran into another example just the other day when we went to look around for some information while working on a post about running into a problem with contact form due to WordPress’ REST API being disabled. That lead us to an example of someone at best not knowing what they are talking about when it comes to the basics of WordPress security while being the developer a security plugin, Cerber Security, Antispam & Malware Scan, that currently has 90,000+ active installs according to WordPress.org.

A big tell that developer doesn’t have a basic clue as to security surrounding WordPress is that a main feature of their plugin is blocking brute force attacks despite the fact that those are not happening. They also make this brute force related claim in the marketing materials for plugin:

By default, WordPress allows unlimited login attempts through the login form, XML-RPC or by sending special cookies. This allows passwords to be cracked with relative ease via brute force attack.

Saying that brute force attacks could crack a password relative ease is belied by the number of login attempts needed to actually test out all of the password combinations. Here is what we wrote about that previously:

To understand how you can tell that these brute force attacks are not happening, it helps to start by looking at what a brute force attack involves. A brute force attack does not refer to just any malicious login attempt, it involves trying to login by trying all possible passwords until the correct one is found, hence the “brute force” portion of the name. To give you an idea how many login attempts that would take, let’s use the example of a password made up of numbers and letters (upper case and lower case), but no special characters. Below are the number of possible passwords with passwords of various lengths:

  • 6 characters long: Over 56 billion possible combinations (or exactly 56,800,235,584)
  • 8 characters long: Over 218 trillion possible combinations (218,340,105,584,896)
  • 10 characters long: Over 839 quadrillion possible combinations  (839,299,365,868,340,224)
  • 12 characters long: Over 3 sextillion possible combinations  (3,226,266,762,397,899,821,056)

The post that we had run across was “Why it’s important to restrict access to the WP REST API”. The post is riddled with errors, for example citing someone as having discovered a vulnerability they didn’t.

The general problem was that they were suggesting disabling the REST API, which not at all coincidentally they touted their plugin did, because there could be security issues with it since it is new. But that is true of anything. In reality the vulnerability they discussed in the post actually showed how WordPress does a good job in handling security in one important way, since the auto update mechanism that has been in WordPress 3.7 allows the vast majority of WordPress website to be updated to a new security release in a very short time. Normally WordPress checks for updates every 12 hours and that can be shortened when a security update is being released, so most of the websites would likely have been updated in around 12 hours. With this vulnerability there was no evidence of it being exploited until after it was disclosed that it had been fixed a week after the version that fixed it was released (while the information on this vulnerability was held back for a week, other security updates were mentioned when it was released).

The developer though put forward a very different impression:

Unfortunately, the REST API bug had not yet been fixed. That leaves unprotected millions of websites around the world. It’s hard to believe but updating WordPress on shared hostings may take up to several weeks. How many websites have been hacked and infected?

That it may take several weeks to for WordPress on shared hosting to update is actually hard to believe, since it doesn’t appear to be true and no evidence was presented to back up a claim even they claim is counter-intuitive. The developer provides no evidence that any websites were hacked before the vulnerability was disclosed as having been fixed a week before, which as far as we are aware they couldn’t have since it doesn’t appear any were. That all probably shouldn’t be surprising since the developer apparently had never checked to see if brute force attacks were actually happening before building a plugin to protect against that.

For website where the auto update mechanism was disabled or didn’t work they did get mildy hacked due to this vulnerability, but that is the only vulnerability in more than a decade that we are aware of where there was any sizable number of websites hacked (in that time outdated WordPress installation have been frequently falsely blamed for the hacking of websites by security companies that either didn’t know what they were talking about or intentionally lying to get themselves press coverage). So disabling the REST API subsequent to this vulnerability being fixed has not actually improve the security of websites in any meaningful way.

There also was the issue of the developer conflating bugs and security vulnerabilities, which is important since having a lot of bugs fixed in something doesn’t mean that there was security risk.

The downside of disabling the REST API can be seen in that, like with the other plugin we mentioned in the post from earlier this week, this plugin can cause Contact Form 7 based forms to stop functioning. This exactly the kind of downside that often isn’t considered when people indiscriminately use WordPress security plugins and services without finding out first if there is any evidence that they provide effective protection. In this case what makes this stand out more to us is that our Plugin Vulnerabilities plugin, which is designed to help protect against a real issue, is much less popular than this plugin. It could be worse though, as another security plugin just designed to protect against brute force attacks has 2+ million active installs according to wordpress.org and it not only doesn’t protect against a real threat, but contains a security vulnerability of its own.

BitNinja Makes Up Zero-Day Attack

The terribleness of security companies never ends. The latest example of that is something we ran across today while looking in to a claim that outdated software was the cause of a security issue on a server. What had been pointed to as evidence of that was a report from a security company named BitNinja. That report was claiming that there was malicious activity based on emails being sent from software on a website, but based on the information provided there was nothing that we could see that would indicate if there really was an issue or if there was a false positive happening (it would seem that the company doesn’t have a good understanding of what information is important to determine that sort of thing).

In looking over BitNinja we quickly ran across evidence of them spreading false information, which happened to involve a topic we just discussed earlier today, exploitation of a recently fixed vulnerability in MODX. The title of a blog post on their website made a striking claim about that, “Critical zero-day vulnerability in MODX Revolution patched by BitNinja WAF”. A zero-day vulnerability refers to a vulnerability that is being exploited before the developer is aware of it, so they have had zero-days to fix it. That obviously is quite concerning since doing the security basic of keeping software up to date wouldn’t protect against and if there was a security system that could protect against such a situation it would be useful.

With a website that had been hacked through that vulnerability the attempts to exploit it on that website started about a week after the vulnerability was fixed, with the first attempts logged on July 19. There was nothing we saw in looking into the situation that would indicate that that this was a zero-day vulnerability.

BitNinja seems to either not have any idea what they are talking about or intentionally misleading people as their claim that this is zero-day vulnerability is based on spotting exploitation attempts two weeks after a fix for the vulnerability had been released:

At 26th July at 6 PM, the flow has been started according to our data. This botnet is really aggressive, as, in the first 6 hours, we detected almost 13.000 attacks!

They also were quite behind in even spotting the attacks, which doesn’t say great things about them either.

Blaming the Victim

Looking at their About Us page a couple of things stood out to us, one of them being them starting with a claim of near equivalency between hackers and people running web servers:

We believe every server owner is responsible for their servers. If they have been hacked – and used for cybercrime – the owner is almost as guilty as the hacker is.

There also is the basis of their business that doesn’t seem to be from a security background, but one of a web host not being able to maintain their servers:

We couldn’t ensure the security of our servers beyond applying continuous updates. To make matters worse, we started losing customers after a series of downtimes. We quickly realized that server security is not a question of a single component but is about several components working together to harden a server. This inspired us to create BitNinja, an all-in-one security solution designed for hosting providers.

They don’t make any claim to having security expertise on that page (not that it would mean much based on what we have seen of security companies making such claims).

Security Company Promises They Can Prevent Websites from Getting Hacked Again and Immediately Contradicts the Claim

What we recently have been noticing over and over in looking over the marketing materials for website security services is that they claim to protect websites from being hacked and almost immediately contradict that claim. As yet another example of that, we were recently looking at a WordPress security plugin named Sitesassure WP Malware Scanner and as discussed over at the blog for our Plugin Vulnerabilities service we noticed that among other issues, it is insecure and contained a vulnerability (security software with security vulnerabilities of their own is a common occurrence from what we have seen). That plugin seemed to be largely a way to promote the security company Sitesassure.

On the homepage of Sitesassure they promote a service they offer with the claim “DONT GET HACKED AGAIN”:

We could find no evidence presented on their website that service was effective at all. When making a claim like that there really should be evidence from independent testing that backs up the claim. If their WordPress plugin is any indication they don’t have much of a grasp security, which seems like prerequisite for being able to have a service that could possibly provide that protection.

Everything we have seen from numerous different angles indicates that services like that don’t in fact provide the claimed protection. That includes plenty of people coming to us asking if we offer a service like that, which works, after using one that didn’t and that the providers of them often prominently promote that the service includes hack cleanups. That is the case with this service as well, as scrolling down the website just a bit from the claim that the website won’t get hacked again there is another part of the promotion for that service:

If the website won’t get hacked again with that service then there shouldn’t be anything to clean up.

Right after that they seem to water down the claim even more by moving the goal line from keeping the website from being hacked, to just it not going down after that occurs:

(While they claim WordPress is a specialty of theirs, they consistently improperly capitalize it, which seems like a good indication it is actually something they are not all too familiar with.)

If you really want to fight back the best thing would be to do is the basics of securing websites as those will actually prevent most hacks, which would make hacking have less of a payoff for the hackers.

If a website has already been hacked the important thing to do is make sure that the website is properly cleaned. From what we have seen providers of services like that usually don’t even attempt to do that, which doesn’t seem that surprising considering that they seem to think it is acceptable to market a security service in a way that they are aware is not true.

When looking for a company to properly clean things up these are things you want to hear from them that they do:

  • Clean up the hack.
  • Get the website secured as possible (which which usually involves getting any software on the website up date).
  • Try to determine how the website was hacked and fix that.

We always do those things when doing a cleanup. When those things haven’t been done by other companies it has frequently lead to us being brought in to re-clean websites.

Bluehost’s Poorly Thought Out Attempt to Clean Up Hacked Websites

We have repeatedly brought up the web host Bluehost in the past on this blog due to various security related issues involving them, including things like using phishing emails to sell unnecessary security services and it looking like a security issue on their end might be leading to websites being hacked. Recently we have started running into another issue while working on hack cleanups with websites hosted with them, it appears that Bluehost is attempting to do some cleanup of hacks in way that doesn’t seem well thought out and can lead to websites having more problems beyond just the ones caused by the hack.

What looks to be going on is that to try to clean files with malicious code, Bluehost is removing code from the files and making a copy of the previous version of the files with a different name. As an example of those different names, in one recent instance the copy of a file named link-manager.php was named link-manager.php.suspected.1524640055. The new files have no permissions, so you can’t view the contents of them (or change the permissions to be able to do that). In many instances the original files have been totally emptied, even if it appears that they had contained legitimate code in addition to malicious code.

One of the problems that is causing is that legitimate files that are used to generate websites are being emptied, which then causes the website to stop working. Due to permissions on the new files it isn’t possible to easily see the previous contents of files to be able to quickly restore the non-malicious portion without getting access to another copy of the file.

Where things get more problematic is that they are changing the permissions on some directories as well as files, which not only restricts seeing what is in the directory, but also introducing a complication that doesn’t occur with the change to individual files, you can’t delete the directories through FTP or the file manager in Bluehost’s control panel.

Bluehost does have the capability to make the files and directories accessible if you contact them.

What is important note is that in every instance we have run into this so far there have been malicious files that were not dealt with by this cleanup, so the upside from them attempting to clean things up is limited while it can come with a fairly significant downside. Another problem with this type of approach is that simply cleaning up hacked files doesn’t deal with the underlying cause that allowed the hacker to be able to add or modify files in the first place, so the hacking could continue.

Looking at Recently Modified Files Isn’t a Good Way To Find Files Added or Modified by Hacker

We often find that companies that claim to have expertise (and often unique expertise) in dealing with hacked websites either don’t know what they are doing or are intentionally doing things improperly. That makes it hard to recommend to people in general that they should hire someone to clean up their hacked website (despite us actually doing that very type of work). But at the same time we often have people contact us that have tried to clean up their own website who clearly don’t know what they are doing and have gotten poor results. Those are not always unconnected issues as there is lots of content put out by security companies on how to clean up websites that is either intentionally poor and really intended to entice people to hire them to clean up the website or is poor because the companies really don’t know what they are doing.

An example of that we happened to run across recently involves a blog post from a company named WPHackedHelp that is supposed to tell you how to fix a “Japanese Keywords Hack” on a WordPress website, https://secure.wphackedhelp.com/blog/fix-wordpress-japanese-keywords-hack/. Considering that what we assume they are referring to by that actually encompasses a wide variety of different issues, trying to write an all encompassing article would be difficult to impossible. Instead they write one that is really of little use and could equally have been written about trying to deal with many different issues. But we wanted to focus on one obviously problematic piece of advice.

The post in part states you can find malicious files by checking for recently modified files:

Check Recently Modified Files

To search for the most recently modified files, use SSH to login to your web server account and then execute the following command:

find/path-of-www -type f -printf ‘%TY-%Tm-%Td %TT %p\n’ | sort -r

Navigate through the files and see if you find any doubtful changes made to the code.  If so, replace the files with the clean backup version of it.

For anyone that has even dealt with a few hacked websites there should obvious problem with that advice and for any company that claims to have expertise dealing with hacked websites there should be another obvious issue. WPHackedHelp certainly claims to have that level of expertise:

With over 15 years of experience, our WordPress security experts specialize in website malware removal & cleanup WordPress websites.

It’s worth noting though that WordPress itself is barely 15 years old, so we would assume that is referring to combined experience, though they are not upfront about that, which seems like a red flag.

The glaring problem with relying on the last modified date of files is that hackers frequently change the last modified date of files they have added or modified to have the dates match other files in the same directory. In some instances that occurs with some of the files and not others, so someone might think they have gotten the malicious files and really they have missed a lot of them.

The other issue with this is that often times people only become aware that their website has been hacked well after it has occurred, in some extreme instances the hackers originally got in years ago. So even if the hacker hasn’t changed the last modified dates, looking at recently modified files wouldn’t identify them.

At the end of WPHackedHelp’s post you get to the seeming insincerity of the whole thing as they write:

Having listed an array of methods requiring technical expertise, let’s consider an approach that is way smarter, consumes less time and takes the burden off your shoulders. WP Hacked Help deploys a systematic plan to clean up your WordPress website. The site is thoroughly scanned and the detected flaws are dealt by an expert team to provide you with a website free of malicious codes. Within a short span of time, your website will be live up again, running efficiently like before.

Why not be upfront about that, considering that it is supposed to be “way smarter, consumes less time and takes the burden off your shoulders”?

What is missing in that post or anywhere else that we looked on this company websites for that matter was any mention of one of the three key components of a proper hack cleanup, trying to determine how the website was hacked. Not only is that important to make sure that the hacker can’t just get back in after things are cleaned, but we have found that the work involved with that is important to make sure the hack is fully cleaned up. In almost every instance when we are hired to re-clean up a hacked website there had been no attempt to do that, so avoiding companies that don’t do that is something we would recommend.

If the focus of security companies was on figuring out how websites were being hacked and working to make sure that the instances of those things are lessened, security could be in much better shape than it is. That of course would mean less business for a lot of those security companies, so instead you have an arms race type situation where hackers figure out new ways to avoid detection (like changing the last modified date), which makes it harder to clean up hacked website, leading to more business for security companies, but a worse situation for their customers since the root cause isn’t being dealt with properly.

cWatch Makes False Claims About Security of WordPress Themes While Touting Their Security Analysts

When we previously discussed a service named cWatch we noted how the people behind it didn’t seem to understand what they were talking about when it came to security. We recently happened to take a look at them again and found things haven’t changed. Previously they falsely claimed that it isn’t possible to fully clean up hacked websites, despite them offering to do website malware removal for free (which seems like it explains the price). This time they are making false claims about the security of WordPress themes.

In a June 11 blog post titled “Infected WordPress Themes Still on WordPress.org” they start by stating:

Having come across many exploits and vulnerabilities it is no surprise that WordPress, being one of the most common themes used, seems to be a hacker favorite.

In order to stay proactive, we researched wordpress.org Apache Subversion (SVN) and discovered some major commonalities within some infected themes.

This presents a major concern as these infected files can be quite easily installed from the wordpress.org site directly.

During the next couple of blog posts we will publish a series of articlestitled INFECTED WORDPRESS THEMES STILL ON WORPRESS.ORG, where we will share with you our findings in the hopes of helping stop the spread of these infections through awareness.

That sounds concerning, but a little odd. If there was really some issue wouldn’t they want to work with WordPress to resolve it instead of trying deal with it through “awareness”? From what we have seen of the security industry, awareness is usually a euphemism for making false or misleading security claims to get coverage for yourself and that is the case here.

The next section of the post though seems to indicate that cWatch didn’t really know what they are talking about:

The following is a list of the infected WordPress themes we have discovered:

What they are linking to there are not themes, but individual files that contained malicious code in themes. That seems like a big detail to miss, but there’s more. The first five files are from various versions of one theme, Delish. In each link the number listed is the version number of the theme. Based on that it seemed that only versions up to 1.3.3 would have been impacted. The current version is 1.6, so five of the seven “themes” they claim infected are in fact not. In fact, version 1.3.4 was released on March 31, 2015 (and did in fact remove the malicious file). So it wasn’t like this was dealt with after the claim by cWatch or even recently. There is another issue with the claim that theme was infected, which we will get to in a moment.

The two other themes are not even available anymore and it doesn’t look like they were available recently. One of them, Neworld, had the malicious file removed in a version that was released on June 8, 2015. The other theme “Elgrande (shared on wplocker.com)” never had fix released, so that is the closest there is a current issue, but it still doesn’t live up to cWatch’s claim that “these infected files can be quite easily installed from the wordpress.org site directly” since it can’t be easily downloaded from there anymore and you can’t install themes from there at all.

In looking into those themes we noticed another rather large issue with cWatch’s claims here, which they completely missed, despite it seeming like it should be obvious to anyone that claims to have the expertise they claim to have. All of the infected files have .png extension, which will cause web servers to see them as image files, so the malicious PHP code that had been in them would not run. There would need to additional code to make that code run, which is missing in all but “Elgrande (shared on wplocker.com)”. So there wasn’t a threat from the other two themes even in the versions that contained the malicious files.

What all that seem to make more glaring is at the end of the post there is this ad for cWatch:

Having security analysts as a resource to inspect and investigate all code would be ideal. Connect with us if you are looking to have a security analyst on your side for less than a cup of coffee a day.

Unless you want a security analyst that doesn’t seem mildly component, you would probably want to avoid them.

Poor Copy and Paste

The poor quality of the content of their blog isn’t a one off issue, as can be seen in another recent post. The post is odd to start with since it is about malware that was claimed to have impacted “700 WordPress and Joomla websites”. We don’t know why something like that would merit coverage, unless there was some new vulnerability that was exploited to hack those websites. Strangely the source of the hacks was not discussed at all in their post or the original source they lightly rewrote to create their post. Speaking of the original source, what really stood out to us in the post was the strange headline in the last section:

Mitigation by SiteLock

If ionCube-encoded files have not been intentionally or specifically installed by you or your developer, then any file claiming to use ionCube is likely to be suspicious since the effective usage of IonCube generally needs manual server configuration. Moreover,  cross-compatibility with varied versions of PHP is found to be minimal, thus decreasing the viability of use as malware.

SiteLock is the name of another security company that isn’t exactly known providing accurate information when it comes to this sort of thing, so you wouldn’t want to be blindly repeating their claims. cWatch though takes it further by simply lightly rewriting SiteLock’s post. Here is SiteLock’s version of the above paragraph:

If you or your developer have not specifically and intentionally installed ionCube-encoded files, it is likely that any files claiming to be using ionCube are suspicious, as successfully making use of ionCube typically requires manual server configuration. Also, cross-compatibility with different versions of PHP is minimal, reducing the viability of use as malware.

What is worth reiterating is that you have two security companies there that offer services that they claim protect websites, but they seem to be uninterested in how these websites were hacked, despite the obvious relevancy to what they claim to offer. In reality SiteLock at least actually thinks that protecting websites involves leaving them vulnerable to being hacked, they are not alone in that belief.

GoDaddy’s Idea of Securing Websites Actually Involves Leaving Them Insecure and Trying to Deal with the After Effects of That

Yesterday we discussed GoDaddy’s usage of misleading claims to try to sell overpriced SSL certificates. Based on that it probably wouldn’t be surprising to hear that they would mislead people in other ways about security and that is exactly what we ran across while looking into things while working on that previous post.  When we clicked on the “Add to Cart” button for one of their SSL certificates, at the bottom of the page we were taken to, there was a “malware scan and removal” service offered to “Secure your site”:

The description of that is:

Defend your site against hackers and malware with automatic daily scans and guaranteed cleanup.

It shouldn’t be too complicated to understand what is wrong with that, though as we mentioned earlier today there seems to be a lot of confusion when it comes to what security services and products do.

If a website is secure it wouldn’t have malware or some other hack on it to detect or remove, so either GoDaddy doesn’t understand what they are providing or they are lying about.

The problem we see so often with this sort of service is that people will fail to do the things that will actually keep websites secure because they believe a service like this will actually keep a website secure.

Trying to deal with the after effects of having a website hacked instead of actually securing it introduces a lot of issues. One of those being that if a hacker uses the hack to exfiltrate customer data stored on the website a cleanup isn’t going to undo that.

What is a lot more important to note is that everything we have seen from the underlying provider of GoDaddy’s security services, Sucuri, is that they are not good at detecting and cleaning up hacks of websites. Their scanner seems, to put it politely, incredibly crude. Their employees seem to lack a basic capability to understand evidence that a website is hacked. And in what is most relevant to this specific service, we recently we brought in on a situation where their scanner had failed to detect that a website was hacked and then they repeatedly incompletely cleaned up the website, leaving it in a hacked state for a while. It was only after we were brought in to clean things up properly (which Sucuri doesn’t appear to even attempt to do) that it was finally cleaned and stayed that way.

The Truth Behind Conflicting SiteLock Reviews

Recently something we had written about the web security company SiteLock was linked to in thread that starts out with someone discussing the conflicting reviews of SiteLock:

Just had a word press site hacked. Out host suspended our site and recommended site lock to clean it up. I looked at online reviews of their service. There are reviews that say they’re good, and reviews that say they are a scam. They say that you pay to have your site cleaned and then monthly to protect it. There are numerous reviews saying that even with the monthly fees, their sites still got hacked, and they were charged hundreds of dollars to fix it again. If these reviews are true, I want a better solution. What would you do? Are the reviews true?

As we monitor the reviews of SiteLock to keep track of what they are up to since we are frequently contacted by people looking for help after being contacted by them or having hired them, we thought it would be worth touching on what explains those conflicting reviews.

Positive Reviews

The positive reviews of SiteLock mostly fall in to two categories. The vast majority of recent reviews are by people that are pushed by SiteLock to provide a review after any interaction with them. We really do mean any. Here for example are two reviews shown on the review website consumeraffairs.com from the same day, giving SiteLock five stars for helping them to update credit card information:

I contacted SiteLock because I needed to update my credit card information. I was delighted by the speed and helpful service I received from the support team. I would highly recommend SiteLock for their valuable products and services, which are consistently stellar.

Tyrell was very helpful in walking me through updating my credit card billing information online. He was also very courteous and patient while he waited as I entered my information. It would be a pleasure to work with Tyrell again.

That doesn’t seem like something people would do on their own all that often. More importantly, that really doesn’t tell you anything about how well or poor the service is, just that this company is interested in making sure it keeps getting paid.

It isn’t even clear that the people leaving those reviews would be aware of that website as a company that pays consumeraffairs.com a monthly fee, as SiteLock does, is provided various methods to have reviews collected:

ConsumerAffairs also helps Accredited Members collect reviews through Facebook, email, feedback cards, targeted phone calls and through its website.

Well come back to what else that SiteLock’s paying that website provides them in a bit, but first there are second set of positive reviews. Those largely look to be made up of people who generally believe that SiteLock is providing a good service and have left a review on their own. Considering that even many people in the security industry don’t have a good understanding of security, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that these positives reviews from the public are not necessarily providing a good picture of what SiteLock really provides. For example, one five star review of SiteLock we used as an example of that last year, actually indicated that SiteLock was leaving a website insecure. That isn’t surprising since as we mentioned more recently, SiteLock’s own marketing material indicates they think that security doesn’t involve keeping a website secure, but dealing with the after effects of leaving it vulnerable.

Negative Reviews

If you were to look at the most recent one star reviews of SiteLock on consumeraffairs.com what you would notice is that you have to go back months to see one where the one star rating is shown. The most recent ones either say “Insufficient response received” or “No response received”. The reason for that is that by SiteLock being a paying customer of consumeraffairs.com they can challenge reviews and they in fact have challenged every single recent negative review. The reason for that is that by doing they can get the low ratings excluded from the overall rating:

While ConsumerAffairs never changes star ratings at a company’s request, a consumer may choose to change a star rating after resolving a complaint. In addition, if a consumer does not respond to a request for more information, or the consumer’s complaint is resolved privately with the company, or the factual basis for a complaint is unresolved, the consumer’s star rating may not be displayed and will not be included in a company’s overall star rating.

The business model of that website and other review websites looks to be built on companies paying them to present a positive image of the company.

What seems to be a telling indication that negative reviews are the ones of value is that all the most helpful reviews are currently negative ones.

That doesn’t mean that those reviews are accurate either. Just as the natural positives reviews can be inaccurate due to a lack of understanding of security, plenty of the negative reviews we have seen are also inaccurate. For example, we have seen numerous negative reviews that claim that SiteLock hacked websites. We have also had people contacting us that claim the same thing. We have never seen any evidence to support that despite it being such a serious allegation and plenty of evidence to the contrary.

If you want to a summary of what SiteLock really offers, this review on consumeraffairs.com from May 23 does a great job of that:

It’s my opinion that SiteLock is exhibiting predatory sales tactics. In my case they sold me on the service to monitor and protect my website from malware for a subscription fee. They are aggressive. But the worst part is that malware infected my site again and I called SiteLock for help since I’m a paying customer. Even though they originally sold me on the effectiveness of their products they told me they were not going to be able to remove the new malware and it would cost $300 to remove it. They also were trying to sell me on more services. It’s just my opinion but then I believe they set up a system to catch people when they are most vulnerable then charge them a lot to get their website working again. The support people that I talked to are salespeople. Look elsewhere folks. Save yourself the wasted time, money and the headaches that come with choosing the wrong company to protect your website.

One thing that we would note about that is that we are not aware of any company that provides a service that will provide effective protection of a website. If you are looking for something like that we would recommend instead you do the things that are going to actually keep your website secure, but otherwise you would want to look for one that present evidence, preferably from independent testing, that shows that is effective (if someone finds a company that provides that we would love to hear about that).

If your website is already hacked, before focusing on the things that will protect it going forward, it should be properly cleaned, which involves three key components:

  • Cleaning up the hack.
  • Getting the website secured as possible (which which usually involves getting any software on the website up date).
  • Trying to determine how the website was hacked and fix that.

From what we have seen SiteLock usually doesn’t attempt to do the last two and doesn’t do all that good a job of the first. Unfortunately, based on experience frequently being brought in to re-clean up hacked websites they are far from the only company that is not even attempting to properly clean up hacked websites.

That SiteLock doesn’t attempt to determine how websites were hacked explains in part why they are not good at protecting websites from being hacked either as they wouldn’t even know what to protect against.

Atlantic BT’s Scare Tactics Lead to Belief That Google Is Rendering Non-HTTPS Websites Useless by Labeling Them “Not Secure”

One of the problems we have found in dealing with security over the years is that you have a lot of people managing websites that believe they have a much better understanding of things than they do. Security companies make this situation worse by spreading misleading and outright false information to market their products and services.

One area where we frequently see issues, not just when it comes to security, but more generally as well, is people managing websites believing that upgrading software on a website will resolve some issue they are having. What seems like it should give them some pause, but apparently doesn’t, is that they don’t themselves even have the capability to handle the upgrade, but believe they know what the impact of that would be.

What we have found repeatedly in that situation is that they will contact someone like us about having an upgrade done and not mention that their reason for getting the upgrade is the assumption that it will resolve that issue. In some cases they only bring it up after the upgrade has been fully completed and the issue still exists.

Due to the increasing frequency we run into this type of situation we recently changed how we do things, so now in the contact form for upgrade services we specifically ask why there is interest in having an upgrade done.

A recent example of that showed why that is important and brought across misleading claims from a company named Atlantic BT about the changing handling of non-HTTPs website in Google’s Chrome web browser.

The reason given that this person was interested in having a fairly significant upgrade done was that their website was going to be “useless” in a few weeks due to a new Google security regulation. We really didn’t know what they were talking about and for good reason, it turned out the reality was very different.

What is happening is that in July with the release of Chrome 68, Google will start labeling non-HTTPs web pages as “not secure”. Here are the before and after according to Google:

That wouldn’t make a website useless, though it might make an eCommerce website, like the one we were contacted about, less appealing.

What was more important was that upgrading the software on the website wouldn’t have an impact on that since HTTPS is handled by the server, not the software running on the website. As long the software on the website allows you to configure things so that addresses on the website start “https” instead of “http” there is no need for an upgrade to implement HTTPS.

So where did the idea that the website would be useless come from? It turned that was due to a blog post on Atlantic BT’s website. The intent of the post seems to be scare people in to contacting this company for security services.

The name of the post as listed in the URL for it, https://www.atlanticbt.com/blog/google-chrome-warn-users-non-secure-websites/, seems neutral. The visible title isn’t, “Non-Secure Websites, Beware! Google is After You”.

In the first paragraph they state:

This could create many challenges for web owners and designers. Traffic and revenue losses, as well as drops in organic search rankings, could all be consequences.

In second paragraph they make a claim that there is a requirement to use HTTPS, despite there not being one:

By July, Google will require ALL websites to have their entire domain set up as HTTPS.

In third paragraph they again try to push the negative impact, without quantifying how much, if any, they are claiming there would be:

This means that Google’s policy update will have major implications on your site’s web performance.

In the fourth paragraph they can’t even get to a benefit of HTTPS without playing up fear first:

Before stressing over the potential impact of this update, it’s important to recognize the countless benefits of establishing a secure connection via TLS.

The final section of the post, titled “What are the implications of Google’s update?”, starts with more unquantified claims:

Google is increasingly using security as an algorithmic ranking factor within their Search Engine Results Page (SERP). In 2014, Google publicly announced that websites would receive a boost in rankings if they switch from HTTP to HTTPS. And in-line with that policy, sites that remained HTTP would be at risk of losing rankings. This is a serious threat to the acquisition of organic traffic on HTTP websites.

So people should be doing something now because there was change four years ago, which Atlantic BT can’t actually cite say percentage impact of (as far as we are aware there wasn’t much impact on rankings due to that change).

Next, they finally mentioned a quantified stat:

There is also an added risk of dropping conversion rates and losing customers. Studies show that  85% of web users would choose not to make purchases from a website if it was labeled as “non-secure”.

If you follow the link though it doesn’t make the specific claim they claim it does and there are a number of other issues. What is claimed on the link page is that a survey found that:

In fact, 85% of web users state they wouldn’t buy through a website where they weren’t certain their data was being transferred securely.

Among the issues that we can think of off the top of our heads:

  • That isn’t a study.
  • The question posed is different.
  • People stating they would do something does not necessarily reflect what they really would do.
  • The survey was done by a company that sells SSL certificates, which makes the result somewhat suspect. Fuller details that could be used to better access the veracity of the survey, like what was the wording of the question, were not provided.

No other quantified statistics were provided in the post.

The final paragraph of the post seems to be what all the rest was leading to:

If you’re concerned about the potential impact of this upcoming Chrome update, or the security of your site, contact the experts at Atlantic BT.

Based on what we saw in that post it would seem like you would be best steering clear of that company.