Looking at More Blackmail Spam

I recently published a post about blackmail spam in which the spammer was (as far as I could tell) unsuccessful in their efforts to scam people. Unfortunately, another campaign dropped into my inbox over the last couple of days where the spammer has been much more successful.

I’m not going to do the full breakdown that I did for the previous campaign, as they are rather similar, but I’ll try to highlight some differences. First, here’s the full text of the email I received:

Hello!
Have you recently noticed that I have e-mailed you from your account?
Yes, this simply means that I have total access to your device.

For the last couple of months, I have been watching you.
Still wondering how is that possible? Well, you have been infected with malware originating from an adult website that you visited. You may not be familiar with this, but I will try explaining it to you.

With help of the Trojan Virus, I have complete access to a PC or any other device.
This simply means I can see you at any time I wish to on your screen by simply turning on your camera and microphone, without you even noticing it. In addition, I have also got access to your contacts list and all your correspondence.

You may be asking yourself, “But my PC has an active antivirus, how is this even possible? Why didn’t I receive any notification?” Well, the answer is simple: my malware uses drivers, where I update the signatures every four hours, making it undetectable, and hence keeping your antivirus silent.

I have a video of you wanking on the left screen, and on the right screen – the video you were watching while masturbating.
Wondering how bad could this get? With just a single click of my mouse, this video can be sent to all your social networks, and e-mail contacts.
I can also share access to all your e-mail correspondence and messengers that you use.

All you have to do to prevent this from happening is – transfer bitcoins worth $1450 (USD) to my Bitcoin address (if you have no idea how to do this, you can open your browser and simply search: “Buy Bitcoin”).

My bitcoin address (BTC Wallet) is: 1A2BsswHPrE2RvUusSQY4w53P1WjuUdpbN

After receiving a confirmation of your payment, I will delete the video right away, and that’s it, you will never hear from me again.
You have 2 days (48 hours) to complete this transaction.
Once you open this e-mail, I will receive a notification, and my timer will start ticking.

Any attempt to file a complaint will not result in anything, since this e-mail cannot be traced back, same as my bitcoin id.
I have been working on this for a very long time by now; I do not give any chance for a mistake.

If, by any chance I find out that you have shared this message with anybody else, I will broadcast your video as mentioned above.

Some scammer, somewhere. Possibly Poland, based on the IP address.

As you can see, this is fundamentally the same as the email I featured last time, though this one is far more explicit regarding what they supposedly recorded me doing. I think it’s interesting that they say they will file a complaint; I’m not really sure what they mean by that, or where I would do that (except, perhaps, with the ISP who owns the IP address that this email was sent from… which I may yet do).

This scammer is also asking for more money; the last scammer asked for “only” $950 in Bitcoin, whereas this scammer is asking for $1,450, which is a markup of over 50%. And, sadly, when we look at the address in a blockchain explorer, we can see that their campaign has unfortunately been successful, and appears to have netted them over $6,750 as of 1/11/21.

As I write this, the scammer is moving the funds from the address in the email to another address, which may belong to a Bitcoin tumbler or another method to further anonymize the source of their funds so they can withdraw it and convert it to the currency of their choosing.

I’m pretty certain that more transactions will drain this new address (which is 3FxzHGbsojSPVf4d1FJ6QVrn8VcFGQMVJt for anyone interested in doing their own sleuthing) in fairly short order. And unfortunately for the five (or possibly six, if the $377.81 amount was intended as an initial payment to prevent the release of information) current victims of this campaign, their money is already gone and is very likely unrecoverable.

Remember, a hacker isn’t going to single you out for extortion unless you’re a head of state or high-powered executive somewhere. Don’t fall for it.


Have you come across a piece of spam that you think deserves some closer attention? Did you get a blackmail request like the ones I’ve written about? Send it to me at [email protected], one of my spam honeypots, and I’ll take a look at it.

Taking a look at blackmail spam

Introduction

Like many people, I receive quite a lot of spam email. Unlike most, I actually read it, because it’s often interesting. I’ve had a number of email addresses, and between them I think at least one of my email addresses has been included in most of the big website breaches over the last eight or ten years.

The spam that these emails receive varies rather widely. Some is the generic “hot woman saw your profile on this dating site, log in now for SEXXXXX!!!1!” spam that is quite common, though for a period of about a month almost all of the dating site spam I received was in German; I don’t know why. There’s also plenty of the “click here to buy cheap Viagra” spam, or its more recent and rather depressing counterpart, “click here to buy cheap N95/KN95 masks!” And there are of course lots of other types of spam that we’ve all been warned about for the last twenty-five years.

But I think my favorite type of spam email that I’ve received lately is probably the blackmail spam. Those are the “I infected your computer to take secret video of you having a ‘good time’ on adult sites, so pay me lots of money in Bitcoin or I’ll tell everyone” emails. Those have been far more persistent than I expected them to be when I originally received the first one; I honestly thought that they wouldn’t be that lucrative, but I guess when you’re sending out millions and millions of spam emails you’re bound to get a few people who fall for it. And if enough people fall for it to pay for the botnet and a bit more as profit, then it makes sense that they continue to be blasted out into our spam folders.

In fact, this kind of spam email has been one of the most prevalent spam messages I’ve been receiving lately, so I figured a quick analysis of one of these messages might be worthwhile.

A selection of blackmail emails I received on a single day (there were a lot more, all identical)

As you can see, all of these specific emails are from the same spammer; I received 58 copies of this exact email starting on November 17th and ending on November 19th, with 38 of them being sent starting at about 11pm on November 18th and ending at about 6am on November 19th. That lines up with about 8am in parts of Eastern Europe, almost like somebody woke up and kicked off a spam campaign just after breakfast. It ends about 7 hours later, again, as if somebody was done for the day and logged off. And in fact, the IP address attached to the email is registered to Kazakhstan’s largest telecommunications company, which lines up with that idea.

The Message

Looking at the contents of the message itself, it’s rather interesting. It’s using the fairly standard email address spoofing to make it looks like it’s coming from my email address, and points this out at the start of the message as “proof” that the spammer personally hacked me.

”’,,,:::…—***—***…:::”’—***
Hey, today I got some bad news for you.
Check the sender of this email, it’s your email, that means I sent it from your email account.
How?! Some time ago your computer was infected with my private malware, RAT (Remote Administration Tool).
My RAT gave me full access to all your files, accounts, contacts and it also was possible to spy on your desktop and on you over your webcam.
You can google about the functions of Remote Administration Tool.

Interestingly, the email starts with random characters. I’m pretty sure this is an attempt to circumvent spam filters, but if so it didn’t work. Every email I received has a slightly different combination of random characters; I’m guessing this is so hashes of the emails are all different, which could confuse some filters by making them think these are all unique emails and therefore not spam.

Next, it opens with a fairly standard opening that you’ll find variations of on almost all of these blackmail emails.

The sender is completely correct in that I would be having a very bad day if everything else in the email was true, but almost everything else here is false.

  • The email address is spoofed, but that doesn’t mean that the spammer had access to my account.
  • I’m pretty confident that my computer hasn’t been infected by a remote administration/access tool.
  • I don’t have a webcam on my computer.

I do appreciate that the spammer told me to “google about the functions” of the supposed malware that they definitely installed; that’s actually a fairly clever touch, since it means that they don’t need to explain it, and there are plenty of stories out there where people were infected by malware and had information stolen. Telling the recipient to Google for the capabilities is a good psychological trick to make them panic and be more likely to fall for the scam.

Next up, the spammer says this:

I COLLECTED ALL YOUR FILES, ACCOUNTS, CONTACTS.
I RECORDED SOME NICE MOMENTS OF YOU FROM YOUR WEBCAM! ;D
I can publish all your files, accounts, contacts, everywhere, including the darknet.
I can send the video of you to all your contacts, post it on social networks and everywhere else.
To stop me, pay 950$ in Bitcoin (BTC).
It’s easy to buy Bitcoin (BTC), for example here: http://exbase.io , https://paxful.om/buy-bitcoin , or google another exchanger.
My Bitcoin (BTC) wallet is: redacted for reasons I’ll explain below
Yes that’s how the wallet looks like, copy and paste it, it’s (CaSe-sEnSEtiVE).

Here’s where we get to the meat of the scam, and the actual threat. He says he has all my files, and recorded me having some “nice moments,” and he’ll release them all on social media if I don’t pay him lots of money. This is actually rather interesting, since this spammer is much less explicit than most spammers are about what their hacked webcam footage contains. Most of the many, many blackmail messages I’ve received over the last year or two specify that they were recording while I was masturbating to an adult video and take great pains to assure me that if I don’t cooperate they will send that footage to all of my friends. I actually kinda like the softer touch in this message, it feels nicer somehow. If the other spammers are trying to bludgeon me over the head with a baseball bat, it feels like this spammer at least wrapped it in a bit of foam first to cushion the blow slightly.

I do think it’s interesting that they threaten to publish my data on the darknet. For the record, there isn’t really a darknet where anyone would be particularly interested in any of the things they claim to have stolen from me. Would people on the darknet be interested in my identity information? Sure, that might be worth a couple dollars. Beyond that, though, it’s unlikely anyone would care– and I would be shocked if anyone was interested in webcam footage of me having “nice moments.” It’s a threat that sounds scary to relatively uninformed recipients, but not to anyone more familiar with technology.

The price for silence that this spammer is asking for is on the low end of what I usually see in these emails. When these started, they usually asked for a specific fraction of a Bitcoin (usually around 0.75 Bitcoin, or thereabouts), but with the price of BTC soaring recently, I’ve noticed that more spammers are asking for specific dollar amounts instead. Some of the other emails I’ve received recently were asking for about $1,450 in Bitcoin, making this spammer’s offer a relative steal for the price.

I redacted the wallet address, as I suspect that the wallet provided is unique to each email address– they’re identical in each email I received. I checked to see if any Bitcoin had been sent to the address, but it looks like nothing has been transferred to it.

So either the wallet is generated for each unique email address, or the spammer was unsuccessful in this specific campaign. If the wallets are indeed unique, that may be a bit of a differentiating factor in this specific campaign. I don’t track every Bitcoin address I receive in these blackmail emails, but I did check a couple others that I’ve received and determined that they were using shared addresses for all of their recipients. Using individual addresses could be a good way to determine who could be extorted for more money; again, I’m just surmising for now since I only received one BTC address across this campaign.

Lastly, this email concludes with a bit more pressure by introducing a time limit, and explains why I won’t find any evidence of the malware on my computer if I look for it:

I give you 2 days time to pay.
Showing this mail to someone else wont help you, my RAT is no longer on you computer and this email was sent from some random generated account.
After receiving the Bitcoin (BTC), I will delete everything and you never hear from me again.
Next time update your browser before browsing the web!
___***___…,,,”’—…___***…—”’—:::::::::

It’s now been well over two days since I received the email, so I think I can safely assume that my valuable information isn’t likely to be released anytime soon.

I’m really not sure why the spammer says I should update my browser before I browse the web; an adblocker extension such as uBlock Origin or a network-wide adblocker such as Pi-hole would be far more valuable in terms of blocking threats, and most browsers auto-update these days anyway. Even as a “you should have been more careful, so this is really your fault” message, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Analysis and Conclusion

My overall analysis of this message is that it’s a solid try, but I’m guessing that it’s an early effort from a fairly new spammer. The IP address it was sent from indicates it originated with a residential customer of a telecom that likely keeps records, and the message is a bit softer than most successful spammers tend to choose. Additionally, many of the emails appear to have been sent to the same email address over and over and over, instead of being sent to a broader list.

I suspect this spammer was using a fairly inexpensive (or even free) email address list to send out this campaign; the email address I received these blackmail threats at has been on every major email list since 2013, and is likely fairly low-value. This could also explain the limited spread of the campaign; only one of my spam collection emails actually received it, and when I checked with others to verify if the Bitcoin address was unique per email, none of them had received a copy of it either. It could also explain why the monetary demand is low compared to similar spammers; the spammer’s costs may have been low enough that almost any money received would have been a profit.

Ultimately, this type of spam is just increasing. While it doesn’t appear to me that this particular campaign was successful, plenty of others are. In another post, I will dive a bit more into some other blackmail spam variants, including some which use some more sophisticated methods to convince their targets that they really were hacked by the spammer. But for now, remember: these are, in the end, just scams. If you’re here and reading through all of this because you received a message similar to it, it’s a scam. If somebody has full remote access to your computer, they’re not going to send you a polite email asking you nicely to pay up or have your information posted online, they’re going to encrypt your computer and (virtually) hold it for ransom. Don’t fall for it.

We Live In The Future

I grew up on science fiction.  I loved reading stories of The Future, where space travel was commonplace, where all energy was generated cleanly, and where we worked side-by-side with machine intelligences to accomplish tasks.

Of course, that wasn’t what most of the books were about; space travel, clean energy, and A.I. were just part of the background.  And many of the books I read had issues– most of them failed to properly predict the role that women play in society (or often failed to credit them at all, aside from being a love interest for the hero), quite a few were somewhat racist, and all of them glossed over problems of everyday life that couldn’t simply be resolved with technology– but in the background areas of space travel, A.I., and clean energy, they were quite prescient.

“But Ryan, none of those have happened yet,” I hear you saying.  And you’re right, none of these have yet reached their full potential.  But in a world where SpaceX, Blue Origin, Rocket Labs, Virgin Galactic, and so many others are all working to bring affordable spaceflight to the masses (and getting pretty darn close), I think it’s safe to say that space travel will soon[1. Assuming a generous definition of “soon”] become far more commonplace than it is today.  We won’t be living in Star Trek, but costs will come down and won’t be the same barrier that they are today.

And in a world where renewable energy continues to make great strides, I think it’s safe for me to predict that we are well on the way to moving the bulk of our electrical generation away from fossil fuels– there are some problems to solve with electrical transmission and energy storage, but we keep moving closer to to a solution.  As more companies compete for a slice of the renewable energy pie, prices will go down, efficiency will go up, and an increasing percentage of electrical generation will be from renewable resources.  Energy will increasingly be stored in batteries of one kind or another, whether they be chemical (such as Tesla’s Powerpacks), mechanical (such as hydropower or compressed air), or thermal (such as molten salt paired with a concentrated solar tower).  Those batteries will allow more and more of the baseload supply of energy to come from renewables, reducing dependence on fossil fuels, and paving the way for those to be slowly phased out.

Lastly, we already work incredibly closely with machine intelligences, though that intelligence isn’t quite what was predicted (at least, not yet).  Work is increasingly done on computers with incredibly complicated error checking algorithms, designed to reduce mistakes that cost money and lives.  Our data is sorted and analyzed by powerful computers that can correlate information thousands of times faster than we can, letting us build more complicated and accurate models to help us learn even more about the world we live in.  And most impressively (for me), we can now literally talk to our computers and ask them to do things for us.  I know that the first two examples are far more impactful to society, but I still can’t quite believe that I can just talk to my Google Home, have it correctly interpret what I’m asking for, and then give me an answer that makes sense and fulfills my need.  It still feels like magic.

The science fiction writers I read in my youth may have written about a world that was full of more straightforward adventure than the one we live in today.  But what our world lacks in swashbuckling heroes with laser swords, it more than makes up for with the amount of sheer technical wonder that we have at our fingertips each day.  Fifty years ago, for me to write and publish this article would have required a bulky typewriter, a mimeograph machine to create copies of the typed article, a bunch of paper, and a stapler to staple my article up on random light poles for people to read.  Today, I wrote most of this post on my Chromebook connected to the hotspot on my phone, while waiting for my car’s inspection to be finished.  To publish it, I hit the big blue “publish” button at the top of the page, and trusted it would be sent out to your screen when you wanted to read it.  The amount of time and effort saved by modern technology for this article alone could probably cover my grocery bill for a week.  And if that’s not evidence of us living in the future, I don’t know what is.

Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash

Moving to Ubiquiti Unifi

It’s no secret that I enjoy working with new technology and figuring out better ways to do things.  For the last couple of years I’ve been dissatisfied with how my internal network was configured; I was using a basic, off-the-shelf, all-in-one consumer-grade router/wireless access point, and while it normally worked okay, it didn’t always give me the insight or visibility into my network that I really wanted to have.  “If only there was a way to take a commercial-grade wireless networking system, and set it up in my apartment,” I complained to everyone would listen. “Then I could configure everything the way I want, isolate devices on specific networks, and conquer the world!”

I knew I didn’t need a solution as expensive in-depth as Cisco’s enterprise WiFi system, but wanted to graduate beyond the basic consumer networking solutions.  When I found the UniFi system in an Ars Technica review, I was hooked– but I was also still in college, and my meager budget was still too small to support a more advanced networking system.  It wasn’t long, however, before I graduated, moved to a new apartment, and suddenly had some disposable income I could throw at my home network.

I started my network with the smallest and most basic component: a UAP-AC-Lite, the cheapest wireless access point in the UniFi line.  I plugged it into my switch, installed the controller software on my computer, setup my wireless networks, and… it worked!  It was easier than I expected, which was almost disappointing.  I mean, here I was, with a fancy access point, and it didn’t even require hours of tinkering to get it to work the way I wanted?  Where’s the fun in that?

I left the WAP in place for a couple of weeks, and then decided I needed more.  I went out and bought the UniFi Security Gateway, or USG, so I could fully replace my all-in-one with some more advanced tech.  The USG required some more hand-holding to get up and running, but soon that wasn’t enough, either.  I bought a Cloud Key, and then a PoE Switch, and before I knew it I was running UniFi for basically everything on my network.

“That’s all very well and good,” I hear you say. “It’s always fun to read about somebody else spending money when they technically don’t need to. But what does UniFi actually do for you? What problem does it solve?” That’s a good question. UniFi gives me a couple of things I wanted to have; first, it gives me a network that I can expand as my needs shift. If I’m not getting WiFi in an area, I can just plug in a WAP, adopt it into the system, and voila! I have signal. Secondly, everything’s managed in one place, the UniFi Dashboard. All my equipment, and anything I add to the system, can be managed through the dashboard in real-time– and I can do it from anywhere, since I connected my Cloud Key to my Ubiquiti account.

The UniFi Dashboard

This means I don’t need to worry about remembering passwords for each of my devices, which is a major plus for anyone, even if you use a password manager.  UniFi also gives me some basic deep packet inspection, which lets me keep an eye on what’s talking out to the rest of the internet from my network.

It’s not as detailed as I would like, it’s true.  I haven’t found a way to select a specific device and view all traffic from it, for example, but it’s mostly adequate for my current needs. If something pops up that might be a problem, it’s easy enough to explore and inspect to see if anything is truly amiss. As an example, the traffic stats show that remote access terminals have transferred nearly 1.25TB of data to somewhere off-network. If you don’t know what that might be, that’s a problem– a remote access terminal moving lots of data could be an indication of a compromised computer being used as part of a botnet, or could be something spying on you.

Looking at the specific DPI card for that category shows that that entire amount of data has been through SSH, which again could be an indication that something on the network is infected and is phoning home.  UniFi lets us drill deeper, however, and I can see that almost all of the traffic is from one specific machine on my network, which is configured to perform incremental syncing to the cloud via rsync. But if this had actually been a compromised machine, the dashboard could have been my first indication that something was very wrong on my network.

UniFi also lets me setup and configure a guest wireless portal, so no more needing to give guests my WiFi password.  They can just connect to my open network (named Ankh-Morpork in honor of Sir Terry Pratchett), accept the terms and conditions which warn them that their connection may not be private and to not carry out illegal activities using my WiFi, enter the password I have posted in my apartment, and voila! they can access the web on whatever device they may choose.  If they start causing issues, adding bandwidth limits and filtering specific sites is easy, as is managing which devices are connected to the guest network.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with UniFi. I have more I’d like to do (like building out vlans for my various servers), but for now the network is stable, speeds are faster than they were, and my WiFi coverage is great. I’ve been talking up UniFi with everyone that I know, and I’m slowly building out a network at my parent’s house which will let me troubleshoot remotely while increasing their speeds and security.  It costs a bit more than my previous solution, but I’m glad I made the switch.

Listing image by Thomas Jensen on Unsplash

It’s always DNS

I host a few websites for myself and family on DigitalOcean.  Up until recently, I’ve always just spun up a new droplet for each site, so they were all fully independent from each other; this was the easiest and most convenient way to get a new site up and running without jeopardizing uptime on other sites if I made a mistake in configuration, and it was drop-dead easy to map a domain to a static IP.  It had some security benefits, too– if one site was compromised, it wouldn’t affect the rest.

But it was also maintenance-intensive.  I needed to login to multiple servers to run updates; adding plugins had to be redone over and over on each server; and obviously this was starting to get expensive.  So I decided to consolidate my multiple sites on one server, using a fancy feature of WordPress called… “Multisite“.  Imaginative name, I know.

The initial configuration went well, with no real hiccups (other than my accidentally rm’ing most of Apache’s configuration files– but a quick droplet rebuild took care of that[1. Yes, I could have restored the configuration without too much difficulty, but I was early enough in the build that it was faster to just start over.]).  The trouble started when I had moved over the sites I was consolidating, and switched the domains to point at my new Multisite server.  I spent two hours trying to figure out why one of the domains refused to point at the new server, only to discover (drumroll, please)… it was DNS.  I use Pi-Hole on my home network to block malicious sites, but it also provides a DNS caching service which usually works great.  In this case, however, it was pointing me back at the old server over and over, until the TTL finally expired[2. I did set the TTL to a very low number when I started this process, but the old value wasn’t updated until the original one expired.].  A quick flush of the DNS cache, and I was able to see that the domain was correctly configured.  Fifteen minutes later, I had SSL up and my plugins configured.

So what’s the lesson in all this?  Even when you think it’s not DNS… it’s DNS.

Format Aside

A new reflection attack was unveiled today which can increase the size of a DDoS attack by 51,000-fold.  It uses memcached, an object caching system designed to speed up web applications, to amplify attacks against a target.  This represents a substantial increase from previous attacks, which have used network time servers to amplify attacks 58-fold and DNS servers to amplify attacks 50-fold.

Attacks seen this week have surpassed 500 Gbps, which is pretty amazing considering only a small percentage of publicly-available memcached servers are being used to launch those attacks.  It’ll be interesting to see if any larger attacks are launched in the coming weeks… and what their targets will be.

The article over at Ars Technica is pretty good, and is worth a read.

Format Aside

Another day, another vulnerability in a widely-used software package.  Today’s bug (dubbed Optionsbleed by Hanno Böck, the journalist who documented the vulnerability) can reveal passwords and other pieces of vital information to attackers.  While not as big of a threat as Heartbleed, a similar bug which allowed attackers to snag private encryption keys for servers (which is a Bad Thing, since this is how servers verify they are who they say they are; for an explanation of how this works, see my Asymmetric Encryption explanation from last year), this should still be regarded as a significant threat.

Patches are being rolled out now; patch your systems if you haven’t already.

Format Aside

The vulnerability was patched in WordPress v4.7.2 two weeks ago, but millions of sites haven’t yet updated.  This leaves them open to a vulnerability in the WordPress REST API, which can allow malicious actors to edit any post on a site.

Ars Technica has a very nice writeup on the effects of the exploit, which has resulted in the defacement of a staggering number of websites (including the websites of Glenn Beck, the Utah Office of Tourism, and even the official Suse Linux site).  Sucuri and Wordfence also have very good articles about the effects of the vulnerability.

If you have a WordPress site, you should immediately check to make sure you’re on the latest version (v4.7.2).

Format Aside

I’ve noticed a growing trend in more advanced computer users lately: some of them have begun advocating against using antivirus software.  Instead, they suggest using browser extensions like uBlock Origin (which I use and recommend), combined with safe browsing practices, to remove the need for antivirus software altogether.  Ars Technica did a very nice write-up on this trend today, and it’s worth a look.

For what it’s worth, I still use Avast as an antivirus package.  But it hasn’t alerted me to any issues or found any viruses in at least a year, so perhaps it’s time to consider freeing up some memory on my computer.

New Host!

I’ve finally moved to a VPS on DigitalOcean, from my previous (free) shared hosting.  I did this for a couple of reasons: first, while my hosting was free for a year with my domain name, that year was almost up.  To renew my hosting for the second+ year, I would have needed to pay $38.88/year; while that’s a decent price, I looked at my options and decided that moving to DigitalOcean wouldn’t cost much more (around $30 more across the year, since I use the weekly backups option), would give me much more control over my server (now I get SSH access!), and would centralize all of my VPS instances in the same place (I’ve used DigitalOcean for several years to host various projects).

Of course, as with so many things, this migration wasn’t sparked by a simple glance at the calendar.  While I’ve intended to move my host for the last month or two, the timing was decided by my messing up a WordPress upgrade on the old site at the beginning of December.  I used the automatic updater, ignored the warnings about making sure everything was backed up first[1. I didn’t actually ignore this warning.  I had a backup plugin configured on the site; I figured I could probably roll back if I really needed to.], and told it to apply the new version.  When WordPress exited maintenance mode, I was locked out of the administration dashboard.  The public part of the website was still up and running, but the backend was locked off.  Since I was entering finals week at my university, I decided to just let it be until I had some time to come back and fix it.  Worst-case, I had backups I could restore from, and I’d been meaning to migrate my site anyway.

Of course, things didn’t work out that way.  When I finally had some time on Christmas Eve, I discovered that a complete backup hadn’t been made in months.

Yes, I committed the cardinal sin of not verifying the state of my backups.  Apparently I’d screwed something up with their configuration, and I’d never tried to restore from them before and hadn’t noticed until I needed them.  At this point, I decided that if the backups weren’t working, there was no point in trying to recover on a host that I was going to be abandoning within a month, and I spun up a WordPress droplet on DigitalOcean to hold the rebuilt site.

I still had copies of all the content that was on the site, so I’d be able to restore everything without much trouble.  Some copy/pasting and time would be required, but I could get everything back to the way it was without too much trouble.  But before I did all of that, I thought “what if I’m overlooking something really simple with the old site?”  I did a little searching, and apparently W3 Total Cache, which I used to create static pages for my site and decrease load times, can cause problems with WordPress upgrades.  I disabled that via FTP[2. If you’re in a similar situation, just renaming the plugin folder to something else– w3-total-cache to w3-total-cache123, for example– will disable it], reloaded the site, and I was able to access the admin area again.  Turns out the simple steps that you should take before completely rebuilding everything are actually worth it.

Since I had already spun up and started configuring my new site, I decided to press onwards.  My task was made considerably easier by my being able to access WP Clone on the original site, which let me move everything from my old site to the new one in just a few minutes.  I redirected the nameservers to DigitalOcean, and ran a few last checks before calling the bulk of my work done.

The next day, when I was tidying up some loose ends and preparing to get SSL set up, I realized that my email no longer worked– my email server resided on the same server that hosted my old website, which meant I needed to find a new solution.

While I have been meaning to setup my own email server sometime soon, I wasn’t confident in my ability to get it up and running quickly, and email is one of those vital services I depend on working 100% of the time.  In years past, I would have simply used Google Apps[3. Which is now G Suite, but that sounds silly.] to host my email, but that is no longer the free option it once was.  Luckily, I found a solution thanks to Ian Macalinao at Simply Ian, which is to use Mailgun as a free email server.  Mailgun is designed to send out massive email blasts for major companies, but they also offer a free tier for people and companies that are sending out fewer than 10,000 emails per month.  I send out a fraction of that number, so this was perfect for me (and their mass email prices seem quite reasonable, so I might even use them for that if the need ever arises).  Ian handily provided a set of instructions for how to setup the proper routing, and, while some of the menu options have changed, I was able to get my new email up and running within a few minutes.

So I’d managed to get both the site and my email up and running, but I still couldn’t get SSL up and running.  For those that don’t know, SSL stands for Secure Sockets Layer, and it’s what powers the little green padlock that you see on your address bar when you visit your bank, or PayPal, or this website.  I wrote an explanation on how it works a while back, and I suggest checking that out if you want to learn more.
One of the benefits of hosting my website on a VPS is that I don’t need to use the major third-party SSL providers to get certificates saying my server is who it says it is; I can use the free and open Let’s Encrypt certificate authority instead.  Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get the certificate to work correctly; the automated tool was unable to connect to my server and verify it, which meant that the auto-renewal process wouldn’t complete.  I could have generated an offline certificate and used that, but the certificates only last ninety days and I wasn’t looking forward to going through the setup process every three months.[4. It’s a pretty straightforward and simple process, I just know that I would forget about it at some point, the certificate would expire, and the site would have issues.  If I can automate that issue away, I would much rather do that.]  I tried creating new Virtual Hosts files for Apache, my web server, but that just created more of a problem.  Eventually, I figured out that I had misconfigured something somewhere along the line.  Rather than try to figure out which of the dozens of edits I had made was the problem, I gave up and just reverted back to a snapshot I had made before starting down the rabbit hole.[5. Snapshots are essentially DigitalOcean’s version of creating disk images of your server.  I absolutely love snapshots; they’ve saved my bacon more than once, and I try to always take one before I embark on any major system changes.]  After reverting to back before my virtual hosts meddling, I was able to successfully run the Let’s Encrypt tool, generate my certificate, and secure my site.

Lesson learned!


Photo credit Torkild Retvedt.