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April 25, 2024
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 min read

How to Test for PCI Compliance?

Check and maintain PCI compliance tests with our expert guide. Stay secure with the ongoing data breach trends and threats and learn the costs behind PCI DSS.

How to Test for PCI Compliance?
Calendar Icon White
April 25, 2024
Clock Icon
 min read

How to Test for PCI Compliance?

Check and maintain PCI compliance tests with our expert guide. Stay secure with the ongoing data breach trends and threats and learn the costs behind PCI DSS.


  • Secure handling and transmission of card data are crucial, governed by PCI DSS to prevent data breaches.
  • Regular testing, documentation, and security updates by following 6 primary objectives and 12 requirements are necessary to maintain PCI standards.
  • The availing costs may vary with business level 1-2 for PCI compliance test purposes.
  • Strac's DLP solutions help businesses streamline PCI test compliance monitoring, reporting, and more.

If your business handles credit card payments or stores cardholder data, maintaining PCI compliance is an ongoing process. Regular PCI compliance tests are essential to safeguard sensitive data. Such measures not only help avoid penalties but also demonstrate your commitment to customer security and strengthen your brand's reputation.

A compliance breach can expose your business to severe penalties, increased operational costs, and a loss of customer trust. To put it in perspective, an IBM report states that the global average cost of a data breach in 2023 rose to USD 4.45 million, marking a significant high of 15% compared to the previous three years. 

To effectively maintain PCI compliance, consider implementing measures such as conducting thorough penetration tests, running regular vulnerability scans, and updating your policies regularly. This guide provides practical steps to test, check, and maintain PCI compliance efficiently. 

Let’s get started.

What is PCI Compliance, and Who Is It For?

PCI Compliance, which stands for Payment Card Industry Compliance, refers to a set of technical and operational standards established by the PCI Security Standards Council.  They help protect cardholder information and prevent data breaches by ensuring the secure processing, storage, and transmission of credit card data.

The payment card industry emerged in 2006 when online payment systems boomed. To ensure a secure database for customer information, company assets, and capital, security protocols were required. Thus, industry giants like Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, and JCB International established the PCI SSC (Security Standards Council) and introduced the PCI DSS (Data Security Standard) to mitigate financial data breaches.

Who does PCI DSS apply to?

PCI DSS is a required set of security standards for organizations that handle payment card data, whether online, offline, or both. It applies to any entity that stores, processes, or transmits cardholder data. This includes:

  • Merchants of all sizes
  • Payment gateways
  • Processors
  • Acquirers
  • Issuers
  • Service providers 
  • POS systems 
  • Store networks 
  • Payment card data storage 
  • Paper records
  • Online payment applications and 
  • Online shopping carts

What are the Primary Objectives & Requirements of the PCI Test?

In compliance with PCI DSS, PCI testing evaluates and ensures that a business's payment card operations meet the standard protocols of PCI DSS. To prevent data breaches and fraud, this comprehensive testing involves assessing the security of card data storage, processing, and transmission environments.

The PCI Compliance Checklist consists of 6 Objectives and 12 key Requirements that aim to protect customer information and ensure secure handling, storage, and transmission of cardholder data. These requirements are organized into 6 broader goals, each with more than 300 sub-requirements. 

6 primary PCI DSS objectives

1. Build and maintain a secure network and systems

2. Protect cardholder data

3. Maintain a vulnerability management program

4. Implement strong access control measures

5. Regularly monitor and test networks

6. Maintain an information security policy

12 primary PCI DSS requirements

1. Install and maintain a firewall configuration to protect cardholder data

2. Do not use vendor-supplied defaults for system passwords and other security parameters

3. Protect stored cardholder data

4. Encrypt transmission of cardholder data across open, public networks

5. Use and regularly update anti-virus software or programs

6. Develop and maintain secure systems and applications

7. Restrict access to cardholder data by business need to know

8. Assign a unique ID to each person with computer access

9. Restrict physical access to cardholder data

10. Track and monitor all access to network resources and cardholder data

11. Regularly test security systems and processes

12. Maintain a policy that addresses information security for all personnel

Risks of PCI Non-Compliance

While not a federal law, PCI DSS is enforced through:

  • Contractual agreements with payment networks like Visa and PayPal. 
  • By signing these contracts, merchants are bound to adhere to the PCI DSS requirements and 
  • If they fail to comply, the next steps can lead to monthly fines ranging from USD 5,000 to USD 100,000. 

Moreover, the financial implications of fraud or data breaches extend beyond fines, including expenses related to refunds, forensic audits, and investigations, not to mention the potential reputational damage. This underscores the importance of PCI DSS compliance as an essential component of a business’s overall security strategy.

How to Test for PCI Compliance?

To keep PCI compliance, steering efforts and updates will be required as payment technologies and regulations evolve. Here's how you can test PCI compliance:

Step 1: Identify your responsibilities

The PCI Compliance standards classify merchants into four levels depending on their annual transaction volume. This can be divided into:

PCI DSS Business Compliance Levels
Source: PCI DSS
  • Level 2 and Level 3 businesses must process between 1 million to 6 million transactions and 20,000 to 1 million e-commerce transactions. Respectively, they must complete an annual Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ), undergo quarterly network scans by an ASV, and submit an Attestation of Compliance form. 
  • Level 4 businesses shall process fewer than 20,000 e-commerce transactions or up to 1 million transactions across all channels, following the same requirements as Level 2 and 3.

Important: Regardless of the level, all businesses must adhere to the 12 fundamental PCI compliance requirements as stated above.

Step 2: Review each brand's requirements

Each brand has its own specific PCI DSS testing nuances, outlined in the  PCI DSS Quick Reference Guide, which assists in preparing for PCI penetration testing and maintenance.

Step 3: Scan for vulnerabilities and test for penetration

The third step involves scanning for vulnerabilities and conducting penetration testing. The PCI DSS requirement 11 mandates regular security system testing, which can be achieved through penetration testing as a primary method of fulfilling the requirement.

Step 4: Work with a Qualified Security Assessor

A QSA is a certified data security firm authorized by the PCI Council to perform on-site assessments of the organization’s compliance with the PCI DSS. A QSA will evaluate an organization’s security controls, guide how to achieve compliance and produce a final report detailing their findings and recommendations. When choosing a QSA, it is important to consider their experience, qualifications, costs, and references. To work with a QSA, it is important to be prepared, responsive, and cooperative.

Step 5: Submit your official reporting

QSAs must utilize either an SAQ or a Report on Compliance, determined as per the specific requirements of the card brands. Failure to comply can lead to hefty penalties ranging from USD 5,000 to USD 100,000 a month, along with the potential risk of losing your credit card merchant account.

Other PCI Testing and Maintenance Chores to Perform 

  • Daily virus scanning software operations
  • Regular external penetration tests every three to six months to secure networks
  • Documenting firewall policies, security measures, and operational protocols
  • Keeping a detailed inventory of all hardware and software
  • Regularly reviewing all areas where cardholder data passes
  • Conducting annual or bi-annual employee security training
  • Continually updating encryption to tackle new vulnerabilities
  • Keeping detailed logs of actions by users with administrative access
  • Regularly updating lists of third-party service providers
  • Preparing for data breaches with a ready-to-activate response plan

Automation through PCI compliance tools can help by tracking sensitive data more efficiently and accurately.

What are the Costs of PCI Compliance as per Business Size?

The financial burden of PCI compliance varies based on several factors, including the payment processor and company size.

1. Level 1 companies: These companies typically handle over 6 million transactions annually and must produce an annual ROC by a QSA. The cost of this assessment starts at around $10,000.

2. Level 4 companies: These businesses handle fewer than 20,000 transactions annually, so they may not need a QSA, potentially reducing their compliance costs significantly. Overall, PCI compliance can cost as little as USD 1,000 for smaller companies with less complex operations to USD 50,000 for larger companies. Factors influencing this cost include:

3. The frequency and depth of required audits and assessments

4. The sophistication of the security technologies employed, and 

5. The need for specialized consultant services

To maintain and verify PCI compliance, constant efforts are required, including routine testing, documentation, and updates to security measures. Leveraging automation through PCI-compliant tools can help businesses handle these tasks more effectively, potentially reducing the complexity and cost of maintaining compliance.

How Does Strac Ensure PCI Compliance?

Here’s how Strac ensures PCI compliance. 

1. Comprehensive Data Loss Prevention (DLP) Tools

Strac offers robust DLP capabilities that continuously monitor for unauthorized data access or movements, which is crucial for meeting PCI DSS standards. This immediate detection facilitates swift incident response and provides essential data for compliance audits.

2. Protection of stored cardholder data

Strac conducts extensive scans across a business’s digital infrastructure to identify and secure sensitive authentication data. By applying necessary encryption and access controls, Strac ensures the safety of this data, significantly reducing the risk of breaches.

3. Seamless integration with multiple platforms

Strac is compatible with various platforms, including SaaS Cloud and endpoint environments such as Zendesk, Slack, and Office 365, ensuring coverage and protection against data theft across all business operations. This integration allows detection, masking, and redaction of sensitive emails that can affect the overall security of the system.

4. Detailed access controls

Strac implements stringent access controls that limit data accessibility to authorized personnel only. It logs each access attempt, providing an auditable trail that supports compliance efforts and consistent protection of cardholder data.

5. Real-time compliance reporting

Strac's DLP solution includes a feature for real-time compliance reporting. This feature automatically generates reports detailing compliance status, highlighting vulnerabilities, and documenting any incidents that occur. It simplifies the audit process and helps businesses demonstrate their compliance with PCI DSS requirements at any time, making audits less stressful and more predictable.

Strac not only supports PCI DSS compliance but also elevates overall data security for businesses. Schedule a demo to learn more about PCI DSS testing and maintenance. 

Founder, Strac. ex-Amazon Payments Infrastructure (Widget, API, Security) Builder for 11 years.

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