Nulled WordPress themes and plugins are a controversial topic for many in the web development world — and arguably one of the bigger threats to WordPress security.
Essentially modified versions of official WordPress themes and plugins with their licensing restrictions removed, these nulled software copies are often touted as premium functionality packaged in a free download. Nulled components can attract webmasters looking to save money and cut costs, as many premium themes and plugins can be expensive.
However, installing nulled themes or plugins on your website is not only participating in software theft; it can also introduce serious risks — including malware, SEO spam, and website backdoors. As a result, these “free software downloads” may end up costing your website and pocketbook a lot more in the long run.
Let’s take a look at some of the dangers involved in using nulled versions over official releases and examine a recent example of malware found in a nulled plugin.
What are nulled themes and plugins?
Also sometimes referred to as “cracked” or “pirated” software, nulled themes and plugins are an altered version of the premium component that has had its licensing restrictions and limitations removed.
While these free versions may be attractive to website owners looking to save a buck, the dangers of using them far outweigh any benefits. These altered versions may be compromised and contain security vulnerabilities or technical issues that can put you, your customers and visitors, and your website at risk. The user will also not receive updates or support of any kind from the original developer.
Why do people use nulled themes and plugins on WordPress?
Some webmasters choose to use nulled themes and plugins to save money on website development, as many premium themes and plugins can be expensive. Others may not know there are risks involved. They may believe they are downloading a safe, legitimate copy not realizing the dangers involved in doing so.
What are the risks of using nulled themes and plugins?
When using nulled WordPress themes and plugins, it’s important to be aware of the risks involved. Below, we’ll discuss security risks and some technical issues you might encounter.
- Backdoor access: In some cases, nulled themes and plugins contain hidden backdoors that allow unauthorized access to your website. Hackers can leverage backdoors to steal sensitive information including financial details, customer data, and login credentials. Backdoors can also be used to perform a wide range of malicious activities including black hat seo, injected malware or credit card stealers, spam doorways, or even generating new malicious users.
- Vulnerabilities: Nulled themes and plugins may contain security vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers to spread malware and gain unauthorized access to your website.
- Malware: Malware is often found concealed within nulled software, which can harm your website and infect your computer. Malware can also spread to your customers’ computers and other devices causing potential harm and negatively impacting your reputation.
- SEO spam and ads: Attackers often monetize nulled themes and plugins by injecting hidden links to shady sites or scripts for unwanted ads.
- Compatibility problems: Nulled themes and plugins may not be compatible with the latest version of WordPress or with other themes and plugins you are using. Using them runs the risk of technical issues and broken functionality.
- Lack of updates: Nulled themes and plugins do not receive regular updates from the original developer, which means that they may not be up-to-date with the latest security patches, functionality improvements, and bug fixes.
- Broken functionality: Using nulled themes and plugins can result in broken functionality and technical issues that can harm your website and your business.
Example of a backdoor found in a nulled theme
To highlight the risks associated with nulled software, we downloaded a random theme from one of the top sites in Google Search results using the search query “free nulled WordPress themes”.
A quick test of theme revealed that the software came bundled with a file called theme/inc/class-appside.php, which was found to contain a heavily obfuscated backdoor.
This malicious code revealed a WordPress webshell packed with numerous features making it easy for an attacker to evade detection and access the environment.
For example, this webshell contains a function that allows an attacker to disable popular WordPress security plugins found installed in the environment. It is also able to infect other files on the server and send database credentials from wp-config.php to the remote server “asdkjhka[.]xyz”.
This particular backdoor is detected by many antiviruses, but sometimes nulled components contain much stealthier malware which are less likely to be detected during a downloaded package scan.
This example clearly highlights why you should avoid installing nulled software on your website to mitigate risk.
What are some alternatives to nulled software?
There are several alternatives that can provide the same or similar functionality without the risks inherent to using nulled WordPress themes and plugins.
Below, we’ll discuss three of the most popular alternatives: free official WordPress themes and plugins, paid premium themes and plugins, and custom development options.
Official free WordPress themes and plugins
It may seem like an obvious suggestion, but here are many free official themes and plugins available that can provide basic functionality for your website. These themes and plugins are licensed, more secure, and often receive regular updates from the developer.
Paid premium themes and plugins
If you need more advanced functionality, there are many paid premium themes and plugins available that provide a wide range of features and support. Similar to the free versions, paid premium themes and plugins are licensed, more secure, and receive regular updates from the developer.
Custom development options
If you have unique or specific needs for your website that cannot be met by the themes and plugins that are currently available, you can opt for custom development. Custom development can provide a tailored solution for your specific website, however it may be more expensive and time-consuming than using something readily available.
In conclusion, installing nulled themes and plugins in your WordPress environment can result in a plethora of security risks, including website vulnerabilities, backdoor access, and malware. Furthermore, website owners may find their SEO impacted by unwanted spam links or malvertising. It can also result in technical issues, such as compatibility problems, lack of updates, and broken functionality.
Before downloading and using any themes and plugins, consider the risks involved. Always choose official and trusted sources to minimize the risks to your website and ensure security and functionality.
And if you’ve recently installed software and suspect you’ve accidentally introduced malware into your environment, we can help clean up website malware infections and harden your site against attack.