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Comment Spam Deluge – Did our Captcha get Hacked?

Have you been having trouble reading Unsought Input lately? You're in good company – I've been having trouble writing for it.

We've been having issues with MySQL to the point of hanging connections and pleasant, but not very helpful WordPress error messages. It's nice that user-friendly errors are built-in to WordPress, since you never want to give users cryptic, blue-screen-of-death style errors. But I needed to get to the root of the problem.

I quickly put on my detective cap and tried to log in with phpMyAdmin – no luck, but this time the error message was a little more useful:

#1040 - Too many connections

Normally you encounter this error for one of two reasons: either you are being Slashdotted, or you are opening up persistent connections (with PHP's mysql_pconnect(), for example) and they are not being closed properly. In the first case, there are just too many queries at once and it fills up the connection limit, and in the second case they build up over time.

I didn't think possibility number 1 was very likely, since we don't write anything cool and geeky enough to get on Slashdot. The story about the Canadian geologist was probably our best bet. I knew I hadn't written any code to use persistent connections, but what about the rest of WordPress?

No such luck. Not a single pconnect in any of the WordPress or plugin code. Back to the first possibility – is it possible we were being hit but a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS)? More specifically (and more likely), we were being effectively DDoS'ed by comment spammers.

How did I figure it out? The connection limit for MySQL is set in the config file, my.cnf in Apache (or possibly my.ini in Windows/IIS):

[mysqld] set-variable=max_connections=100

The default is 100 and that should be enough for most sites. I needed to see what was actually being run, so I connected as a user with administrative rights and sent MySQL this command:


I got back a list of 200 locked queries, all dealing with selecting or deleting comments!

We have two measures in place to combat comment spam. One is Askimet, which is a standard plugin for WordPress. I have no hard data but I would guess almost everyone uses it. The other is a captcha plugin called Did You Pass Math?

The idea behind captchas is to give visitors a small task that is easy for humans but harder for machines. That's where those fancy images with the wavy letters and numbers come from. I wanted to use something a little simpler, so I went with Did You Pass Math. From what I've read, a big part of the power of captchas is just having something there at all to make your submit form non-standard and break the really naïve spamming scripts (see Jeff Atwood's story about his captcha in Coding Horror). It worked really well for a while.

But not any more. Askimet now reports an order of magnitude more spam blocked than ever before.

Is Did You Pass Math officially broken? It seems like I'll need to upgrade or find something different. Maybe I can hack it a bit to ask about more than just addition.

Jess B was kind enough to look through our logs and she found a ton of hits from the same IP range, and the IPs all went to spammy sites filled with more spam. Ugh.

Has anyone else noticed this with Did You Pass Math, or any other captcha plugin?