12 PCI DSS Practices to Protect Your Card Data

In this blog post, we will discuss 12 essential PCI compliance practices that businesses should implement to safeguard their payment environment.

Table of Contents

Best Practice 1: Use Strong Passwords and Change Default Ones: 

One of the most basic yet crucial practices for protecting sensitive cardholder data is using strong, unique passwords and changing the default credentials provided by vendors. Default passwords are well-known and can be easily exploited by hackers, putting your systems and data at risk. By implementing strong password policies, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of unauthorized access to your payment environment.

Here are three things you can do to implement this practice:

Establish a strong password policy:

Create a password policy that requires the use of complex passwords, including a mix of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Additionally, set a minimum password length (e.g., at least 12 characters) and require users to change their passwords periodically (e.g., every 60-90 days).

Change default vendor-supplied credentials:

Many systems and devices come with default passwords and usernames, which are often publicly available. Upon installation, immediately change these default credentials to strong, unique passwords and usernames. Remember to do this for all systems and devices in your payment environment, including payment terminals, routers, and firewalls.

Educate employees on password best practices:

Provide training and awareness programs for your employees on the importance of strong passwords and the potential risks associated with weak or default credentials. Encourage them to use unique, complex passwords for each of their accounts and to avoid reusing passwords across multiple platforms.

Best Practice 2: Store only what you need

Reducing the amount of stored card data not only helps you comply with PCI DSS requirements but also minimizes the risks associated with a data breach. By limiting the storage of sensitive cardholder information, you are effectively reducing the potential impact and costs of a breach. In addition, storing less data makes it easier to manage and protect the remaining data effectively.

Cardholder Data and Sensitive Authentication Data: What to Store and What Not to Store

Cardholder data consists of the Primary Account Number (PAN), cardholder name, expiration date, and service code. Sensitive authentication data includes the full magnetic stripe data, card verification codes (CVV2, CVC2, CID), and PIN data.

The PCI DSS requires that businesses never store sensitive authentication data and only store cardholder data when absolutely necessary.

To help you determine what to store and what not to store, consider the following:

  1. Store: Primary Account Number (PAN) - Necessary for transaction processing and should be stored securely and encrypted.
  2. Store: Cardholder Name, Expiration Date, and Service Code - May be stored if needed for business purposes, but should be protected according to PCI DSS requirements.
  3. Do Not Store: Full Magnetic Stripe Data, CVV2/CVC2/CID, and PIN Data - Storing this sensitive authentication data is prohibited by PCI DSS.

Three Tips for Implementing the "Store Only What You Need" Practice

  1. Review your data storage policies: Assess your current data storage practices to identify what cardholder data elements are being stored, why they are stored, and where they are stored. This will help you determine if there are any unnecessary data elements being retained and where improvements can be made.
  2. Implement data retention and disposal policies: Establish clear policies for retaining and disposing of cardholder data, outlining how long data should be stored and when it should be securely deleted. Ensure that all employees understand these policies and adhere to them.
  3. Encrypt and protect stored data: For any cardholder data that must be stored, ensure that it is encrypted and protected according to PCI DSS requirements. This includes using strong encryption methods, proper key management, and restricting access to authorized personnel only.

Best Practice 3: Inspecting Payment Terminals for Tampering

One critical practice is regularly inspecting payment terminals for signs of tampering or unauthorized modifications. In this blog, we will discuss the importance of this practice, the potential signs of terminal tampering, and provide three tips for conducting effective payment terminal inspections.

Why Inspecting Payment Terminals for Tampering is Important

Criminals often target payment terminals to steal cardholder data by installing skimming devices or other malicious hardware. These devices can be hard to detect and can lead to significant financial losses and reputational damage for a business. By regularly inspecting payment terminals, you can identify any suspicious alterations, remove potential threats, and ensure the security of your customers' payment information.

Signs of Payment Terminal Tampering

Some common signs of payment terminal tampering include:

  1. Mismatched or misaligned components, such as the card reader or keypad.
  2. Unusual attachments or modifications to the terminal.
  3. Damaged or broken security seals or stickers.
  4. Loose or protruding parts that do not seem to belong to the original terminal design.

Three Tips for Conducting Effective Payment Terminal Inspections

  1. Train your staff: Ensure that all employees who handle payment terminals are trained to recognize the signs of tampering and understand the importance of regular inspections. Provide them with clear guidelines and procedures for reporting any suspicious findings or alterations.
  2. Establish a routine inspection schedule: Develop a schedule for inspecting payment terminals at regular intervals, such as daily or weekly. Consistent inspections will help you identify any tampering attempts more quickly and minimize the potential impact on your business.
  3. Keep a log of inspections: Maintain a record of all payment terminal inspections, including the date, time, and results of each inspection. This documentation can help you identify patterns or trends in tampering attempts and provide valuable information for law enforcement or forensic investigations if needed.

Best Practice 4: Select and Communicate with Reputable Business Partners

Trusted business partners play a vital role in your organization's overall security posture. They not only help you maintain compliance with PCI DSS requirements but also contribute to mitigating potential risks and data breaches. Engaging with reputable partners reduces the likelihood of weak links in the security chain, thus protecting your business and its valuable data.

How to identify partners

When selecting business partners, such as payment processors, service providers, and third-party vendors, it is essential to verify their PCI DSS compliance status. Ensure that they have undergone the necessary audits and assessments and hold a valid Attestation of Compliance (AoC) or equivalent documentation. It is also advisable to review their security policies, procedures, and track record to confirm their commitment to data security.

Roles of Various Business Partners:

Understanding the role of each business partner in the payments ecosystem can help you make informed decisions. Some common business partners include:

a. Payment Processors: These entities handle the authorization, clearing, and settlement of transactions between merchants, acquirers, and issuers.

b. Acquirers: Acquiring banks or financial institutions provide merchants with the necessary tools and services to accept and process card payments.

c. Third-Party Service Providers: These partners offer services such as payment gateways, fraud detection, and data storage, which support the merchant's payment processing infrastructure.

Effective Communication with Business Partners:

Establishing clear lines of communication with your business partners is essential for addressing potential security concerns and ensuring the ongoing protection of cardholder data. Regularly communicate and collaborate with your partners to discuss security updates, incident response plans, and other relevant matters. Make sure you have designated points of contact for each partner to streamline communication and effectively address any issues that may arise.

Best Practice 5: Install vendor patches in a timely manner

Vendor patches are updates provided by software and hardware vendors to fix known security vulnerabilities and enhance the overall performance of their products. By installing these patches promptly, you can address potential weaknesses in your systems, reduce the likelihood of a data breach, and maintain PCI DSS compliance. Failure to apply patches can leave your business exposed to attacks, leading to financial losses and reputational damage.

Patch Management Best Practices:

To ensure the effective implementation of vendor patches, follow these best practices:

a. Establish a Patch Management Policy: Develop a formal policy outlining the procedures for identifying, evaluating, and applying patches to your systems. This policy should include guidelines on prioritizing patches based on the severity of the vulnerabilities and the potential impact on your business.

b. Monitor for Updates: Regularly monitor your vendors' websites, subscribe to their security mailing lists, and set up automated alerts to stay informed about new patches and updates.

c. Test Before Deployment: Before deploying patches on your production systems, test them in a controlled environment to ensure they don't introduce new issues or disrupt existing functionality.

d. Keep an Inventory: Maintain an inventory of all your systems, software, and hardware components to help identify which patches are applicable to your environment.

e. Document and Review: Document the patch deployment process and periodically review it to ensure its effectiveness and alignment with your organization's risk tolerance.

Timely Patch Implementation:

When it comes to applying patches, timing is crucial. For critical security patches, aim to install them as soon as possible, ideally within days of their release. For less critical updates, establish a timeframe based on your organization's risk assessment and the potential impact of the vulnerabilities being addressed.

Best Practice 6: Secure in-house access to card holder data

In the world of PCI DSS compliance, safeguarding cardholder data is a top priority for businesses handling payment card transactions. While external threats are often the focus, it is equally important to protect sensitive data from unauthorized internal access. In this blog post, we will discuss the importance of securing in-house access to card data and provide guidance on implementing effective controls.

The Importance of Controlling In-House Access:

Unauthorized access to cardholder data by employees or other insiders can lead to data breaches, financial losses, and reputational damage. By implementing strong access controls, you can minimize the risk of insider threats and ensure that only authorized personnel have access to sensitive card data. This not only helps maintain PCI DSS compliance but also fosters a culture of security within your organization.

Implementing Access Controls:

To secure in-house access to card data, follow these best practices:

a. Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): Implement RBAC to assign access rights based on job responsibilities. This approach ensures that employees have access only to the information necessary to perform their duties, minimizing the risk of unauthorized access or data misuse.

b. Segregation of Duties: Establish clear segregation of duties to prevent any single individual from having control over critical processes, reducing the likelihood of fraud and unauthorized access.

c. Authentication and Authorization: Use strong authentication mechanisms, such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), to verify the identity of users before granting access to sensitive data. Additionally, ensure that access rights are reviewed and updated regularly to reflect changes in job roles and responsibilities.

d. Monitor and Audit Access: Regularly monitor and audit user activities to identify and investigate any suspicious behavior, unauthorized access attempts, or violations of your access control policies.

e. Employee Training: Provide ongoing security awareness training to educate employees about the importance of protecting cardholder data and their role in maintaining PCI DSS compliance.

The Role of Physical Security:

In addition to implementing logical access controls, it is essential to secure physical access to card data and the systems that process, store, or transmit it. Implement physical security measures, such as access control systems, surveillance cameras, and secure storage for sensitive documents, to prevent unauthorized access to cardholder data.

Best Practice 7: Don't give hackers easy access to your systems

System hardening is the process of securing a computer or network by reducing its vulnerability to external threats. This is achieved by eliminating unnecessary software, services, and configurations, as well as applying security patches and updates. Hardening your systems helps to minimize the attack surface, making it more difficult for hackers to exploit vulnerabilities and gain unauthorized access to your cardholder data.

Best Practices for System Hardening:

To prevent hackers from easily accessing your systems, follow these best practices:

a. Remove Unnecessary Software and Services: Evaluate and eliminate any software, services, or protocols that are not necessary for your organization's operations. This reduces the number of potential entry points for hackers to exploit.

b. Apply Security Patches and Updates: Regularly apply security patches and updates to your systems, as vulnerabilities are continually discovered and exploited by cybercriminals. Ensure that your organization has a patch management process in place to identify, prioritize, and apply patches in a timely manner.

c. Configure Security Settings: Implement strong security configurations for your systems, following industry best practices and guidelines. This includes disabling default accounts, setting strong passwords, and configuring appropriate access controls.

d. Implement Firewall and Intrusion Prevention Systems: Deploy firewalls and intrusion prevention systems (IPS) to monitor and control incoming and outgoing network traffic. This helps to prevent unauthorized access and detect potential attacks.

e. Regularly Test Security Measures: Conduct regular vulnerability scans and penetration tests to identify weaknesses in your systems and networks, allowing you to address any issues before they can be exploited by hackers.

Employee Awareness and Training:

In addition to implementing strong technical security measures, it is essential to educate your employees about the importance of system hardening and their role in maintaining PCI DSS compliance. Provide regular security awareness training to ensure that your staff understands the potential risks associated with system vulnerabilities and how to mitigate them.

Best Practice 8: Use anti-virus software

Malware, including viruses, worms, Trojans, ransomware, and spyware, can pose significant threats to your organization's data and systems. By infiltrating your systems, malware can compromise the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of your cardholder data, resulting in data breaches and financial losses. Deploying anti-virus software is a critical step in preventing such incidents and maintaining PCI DSS compliance.

Best Practices for Using Anti-Virus Software:

To effectively protect your systems from malware, follow these best practices:

a. Choose a Reputable Anti-Virus Solution: Select an anti-virus software solution from a reputable provider with a proven track record of detecting and removing various types of malware.

b. Deploy Anti-Virus Software on All Systems: Ensure that anti-virus software is installed on all systems within your organization, including servers, workstations, and mobile devices. This helps to provide comprehensive protection against malware threats.

c. Regularly Update Anti-Virus Definitions: Keep your anti-virus software up-to-date with the latest malware definitions and signatures. This will ensure that your software can effectively detect and remove new and emerging threats.

d. Configure Real-Time Scanning: Enable real-time scanning on your anti-virus software to continuously monitor your systems for malware, detecting and removing threats as they emerge.

e. Schedule Regular Full System Scans: In addition to real-time scanning, schedule periodic full system scans to identify and remove any malware that may have evaded real-time detection.

f. Monitor and Review Anti-Virus Logs: Regularly review your anti-virus software logs to identify any potential security incidents or trends, enabling you to take proactive action in addressing threats.

Employee Awareness and Training:

As with any security measure, it is essential to educate your employees about the importance of using anti-virus software and their role in maintaining PCI DSS compliance. Provide regular security awareness training to ensure that your staff understands the potential risks associated with malware and how to use anti-virus software effectively.

Best Practice 9: Scan for Vulnerabilities and Fix Issues

Regular vulnerability scanning and prompt remediation of discovered issues are essential components of your organization's PCI DSS compliance efforts.

Vulnerabilities in your systems, applications, and network can provide an opportunity for criminals to gain unauthorized access to your cardholder data. Regular vulnerability scanning helps to identify these weaknesses and mitigate the potential risks before they can be exploited. Additionally, vulnerability scanning is a requirement for PCI DSS compliance, ensuring that your organization maintains a secure environment for processing, transmitting, and storing cardholder data.

Best Practices for Vulnerability Scanning:

To effectively scan for vulnerabilities and address any discovered issues, follow these best practices:

a. Use a Reputable Vulnerability Scanning Tool: Choose a reliable vulnerability scanning tool from a reputable provider to ensure accurate and comprehensive scanning results.

b. Conduct Regular Internal and External Scans: Perform both internal and external vulnerability scans on your systems, applications, and network. Internal scans help identify vulnerabilities within your organization's infrastructure, while external scans detect vulnerabilities that could be exploited from outside your network.

c. Address Identified Vulnerabilities: Promptly remediate any discovered vulnerabilities according to their severity and potential impact on your organization's security. Develop a risk-based approach to prioritize the remediation process, focusing on critical vulnerabilities first.

d. Validate Remediation Efforts: After addressing identified vulnerabilities, re-scan your systems to verify that the remediation efforts were successful and that no new vulnerabilities have emerged.

e. Maintain Scan Documentation: Keep records of your vulnerability scans, including scan results, remediation efforts, and validation scans. This documentation will help demonstrate your organization's commitment to maintaining PCI DSS compliance and a secure environment.

Employee Awareness and Training:

Educate your employees about the importance of vulnerability scanning and their role in maintaining a secure environment for cardholder data. Provide regular security awareness training to ensure that your staff understands the potential risks associated with system vulnerabilities and the significance of vulnerability scanning in achieving PCI DSS compliance.

Best Practice 10: Use Secure Payment Terminals and Solutions

Payment terminals and solutions are integral to the process of accepting card payments. By using secure payment technologies, businesses can minimize the risk of cardholder data being intercepted or compromised during transactions. This, in turn, helps to maintain customer trust and protect the reputation of your organization.

Best Practices for Secure Payment Terminals and Solutions:

To effectively implement secure payment terminals and solutions, follow these best practices:

a. Choose PCI DSS Compliant Payment Solutions: Ensure that your payment solutions, including payment terminals and gateways, are compliant with PCI DSS requirements. This will help to maintain a secure environment for processing, transmitting, and storing cardholder data.

b. Implement Point-to-Point Encryption (P2PE): P2PE encrypts cardholder data from the moment it is entered into the payment terminal until it reaches the payment processor. This encryption prevents unauthorized access to cardholder data during transmission.

c. Utilize EMV Technology: EMV (Europay, MasterCard, and Visa) technology uses chip-based cards, which offer greater security than traditional magnetic stripe cards. EMV chip cards generate a unique transaction code for each payment, making it more difficult for criminals to clone or counterfeit cards.

d. Train Employees on Secure Payment Handling: Educate your employees on the proper handling of cardholder data and the use of secure payment terminals. Ensure that they are aware of the risks associated with card payment processing and the importance of maintaining a secure environment.

Regularly Monitor and Update Payment Terminals:

Keep your payment terminals up to date with the latest software and security patches to address any potential vulnerabilities. Regularly inspect your payment terminals for signs of tampering or unauthorized modifications, and promptly report any suspicious activity to your payment processor or acquiring bank.

Best Practice 11: Protect Your Business from the Internet

The internet can be a gateway for cybercriminals to infiltrate your organization's network, steal sensitive data, and compromise your systems. Implementing strong security measures will help to minimize these risks and ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of your cardholder data.

Tips for Protecting Your Business from the Internet:

To effectively protect your organization from internet threats, consider the following best practices:

  • Use Firewalls: Implement firewalls at the perimeter of your network to control incoming and outgoing traffic, as well as between internal network segments. Firewalls help to prevent unauthorized access to your systems and cardholder data.
  • Regularly Update Software and Systems: Keep your software, systems, and applications up to date with the latest security patches and updates. This includes your operating systems, web browsers, antivirus software, and other critical applications.
  • Implement Network Segmentation: Segregate your cardholder data environment (CDE) from other parts of your network to limit the potential attack surface. Network segmentation can make it more difficult for attackers to access sensitive information and can simplify the scope of PCI DSS compliance efforts.
  • Secure Remote Access: If your organization requires remote access to the cardholder data environment, ensure that it is secured using strong encryption and authentication methods, such as virtual private networks (VPNs) and multi-factor authentication (MFA).
  • Monitor and Log Network Activity: Regularly monitor and log network activity to detect potential security incidents or anomalies. Implement intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS) to identify and prevent unauthorized access attempts and other malicious activities.
  • Train Employees on Cybersecurity: Educate your employees on the importance of internet security and the potential risks associated with their online activities. Establish clear policies and procedures for internet usage, and provide regular training to keep employees informed of the latest threats and best practices.

Best Practice 12: Make your data useless to criminals

Despite implementing robust security measures, there is always a chance that cybercriminals might infiltrate your organization's network and gain access to sensitive cardholder data. One of the most effective ways to minimize the impact of a data breach is to render the stolen data useless to criminals.

Tips for making your data worthless to hackers and explore techniques such as encryption, tokenization, and data masking.


Encryption is a process of converting data into an unreadable format using a cryptographic algorithm, ensuring that only authorized individuals with the correct decryption key can access the information. By encrypting cardholder data, you can ensure that even if cybercriminals manage to access the information, they will be unable to read or use it without the decryption key. To enhance data security, store encryption keys separately from the encrypted data and restrict access to authorized personnel only.


Tokenization replaces sensitive cardholder data with unique, non-sensitive tokens that have no intrinsic value to criminals. These tokens can be used for various transactions, such as processing refunds, without exposing the actual card details. The tokenization process ensures that sensitive cardholder data is stored securely by your payment processor, reducing the risk of data breaches within your organization.

Data Masking:

Data masking is a technique that conceals sensitive information by replacing it with fictional or scrambled data. This ensures that sensitive cardholder data remains unreadable and unusable even if unauthorized individuals gain access to it. Data masking can be particularly useful when sharing data with third parties or when using it for testing, analytics, and reporting purposes.

Limit Data Storage:

Minimize the amount of cardholder data you store by retaining only the information necessary for your business operations. Regularly review your data storage policies and practices to ensure that you are not retaining unnecessary information that could be targeted by cybercriminals.

Secure Disposal:

When cardholder data is no longer required, ensure that it is securely disposed of to prevent unauthorized access. This may involve securely deleting electronic data, shredding paper documents containing sensitive information, or using secure data wiping techniques for storage devices.

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