What is a PCI Audit? Best Practices for Success

What is a PCI Audit? Best Practices for Success

Are you ready for your next PCI audit? If you’re not sure, then it’s time to get prepared. If you accept or process payment cards as a merchant, you are responsible for complying with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), which helps to ensure that cardholder data is kept secure. To demonstrate compliance, your organization must conduct a PCI DSS audit. Not only does it demonstrate your commitment to protecting sensitive cardholder data, but it also helps you avoid costly penalties and maintain customer trust. However, navigating the complex compliance requirements can be daunting, especially for service providers who handle large amounts of payment card information. To make sure that you pass your next PCI audit, it’s important to understand and follow the best practices for success. In this blog post, we will discuss the most important PCI audit compliance best practices that can help you pass your next audit with flying colors. Read on to learn more.

Understanding PCI Compliance

Understanding PCI Compliance is crucial for organizations that handle credit card transactions. The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) was developed to protect cardholder data and reduce the risk of data breaches. Card brands are the financial institutions (such as American Express, VISA, MasterCard, JCB, and Discover) that advocate for the advancement and promotion of the actual Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS), which are overseen and administered by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council (PCI SSC). Compliance with PCI DSS is mandatory for all organizations that accept, store, process, or transmit credit card information.

To understand PCI compliance, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the key terms and requirements. The PCI DSS is a set of security standards that consists of 12 requirements grouped into six control objectives. These requirements cover a range of security controls, including maintaining a secure network, protecting cardholder data, implementing strong access controls, regularly monitoring and testing networks, and maintaining an information security policy.

One important aspect of PCI compliance is understanding the scope of the cardholder data environment (CDE). The CDE is the environment that encompasses all systems and processes that store, process, or transmit cardholder data. Understanding the scope of your CDE is critical for identifying the security controls and processes that need to be implemented to protect cardholder data.

Another key concept in PCI compliance is the Attestation of Compliance (AOC). The AOC is a document that is completed by the organization’s Qualified Security Assessor (QSA) or Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) and confirms that the organization has implemented all necessary security controls and is compliant with the PCI DSS.

Understanding the differences between SAQ (Self-Assessment Questionnaire) and QSA (Qualified Security Assessor) requirements is crucial for organizations preparing for a PCI DSS audit. The SAQ is a self-assessment tool that allows certain organizations to evaluate their own compliance with PCI DSS requirements. It is typically used by smaller merchants or service providers who have a lower volume of transactions and fewer security controls in place.

On the other hand, a QSA is a qualified individual or organization that has been certified by the PCI SSC to assess the compliance of organizations with the PCI DSS. QSA audits are typically conducted for larger organizations or those that handle higher volumes of transactions. A QSA assessment involves a more comprehensive and detailed evaluation of an organization’s security controls and processes.

Organizations must also engage with Approved Scanning Vendors (ASVs) to perform regular vulnerability scans and penetration tests. These tests identify vulnerabilities in the organization’s network and system components and help in remediating any issues found. The number of system components within your PCI scope can be reduced by implementing network segmentation.

Key Best Practices for Preparing for a PCI Audit

When it comes to preparing for a PCI annual audit, several key best practices can help ensure a successful outcome. Companies frequently undertake several audits (such as HIPAA, SOC 2, and PCI DSS), and understanding the standards set forth by each audit standard is critical in order to prevent duplication of work. The ideal strategy to enhance the effectiveness of designing and upgrading your internal information security program is to discuss all ongoing compliance actions with your auditor or internal audit team while keeping the scope in mind.

One of the first steps is to establish a clear understanding of the PCI DSS compliance process requirements. Familiarize yourself with the 12 PCI DSS requirements and the specific controls that need to be implemented to protect cardholder information. This includes maintaining a secure network, protecting cardholder data, implementing strong access controls, regularly monitoring and testing networks, and maintaining an information security policy.

Once you have a clear understanding of the requirements, it’s important to conduct a thorough risk assessment of your organization’s current compliance status. Identify any vulnerabilities or non-compliance issues and develop a plan to address them. This may involve implementing additional security measures, updating policies and procedures, or conducting training for staff members.

One of the key areas that organizations often overlook is the importance of strong cybersecurity measures. Implementing firewalls, encryption, and intrusion detection systems can help protect against unauthorized access and data breaches. Regularly reviewing and updating these security measures is essential to stay ahead of emerging threats.

Another best practice is to establish a culture of security and compliance within your organization. This involves training all staff members on their roles and responsibilities in maintaining PCI DSS compliance. Regularly communicate the importance of compliance and provide ongoing training and awareness programs to reinforce best practices.

During the actual audit process, it’s important to be prepared and organized. Have all necessary documentation readily available and be prepared to answer any questions that may arise. Engage with the auditors and provide them with the information they need to conduct a thorough assessment.

Finally, once the audit is complete, it’s important to implement post-audit best practices for ongoing compliance maintenance. This includes regularly reviewing and updating policies and procedures, conducting internal audits, and staying informed about any changes or updates to PCI DSS requirements.

Establishing and Maintaining Strong Security Measures

Organizations must build and maintain strong security measures to protect their important data in the ever-changing world of cybersecurity. This is especially true when it comes to maintaining PCI DSS compliance. Establishing and maintaining strong security measures not only helps protect credit card data but also demonstrates a commitment to maintaining a secure environment for your customers and partners.

One of the first steps in establishing strong security measures is establishing a risk management program and implementing robust access controls. This includes enforcing strong passwords, implementing multi-factor authentication, and regularly reviewing and updating user access privileges. By limiting access to cardholder data to only those individuals who truly need it, you can minimize the risk of unauthorized access or data breaches.

Another important aspect of strong security measures is regularly monitoring and testing networks for vulnerabilities. Conducting regular vulnerability scans and penetration tests can help identify any weaknesses in your network infrastructure and address them before they are exploited. By staying proactive in identifying and mitigating vulnerabilities, you can significantly reduce the risk of data breaches and maintain a strong security posture.

In addition to monitoring and testing, encryption plays a critical role in maintaining strong security measures. Encrypting sensitive data, both at rest and in transit, ensures that even if it falls into the wrong hands, it remains unintelligible. Implementing robust encryption protocols, such as AES-256, can help safeguard cardholder data and mitigate the risk of data breaches.

Finally, it is important to stay up to date with the latest security patches and updates. Many data breaches occur because organizations fail to apply security patches promptly, leaving their systems vulnerable to known vulnerabilities. By regularly updating your systems and applications, you can close these security gaps and reduce the risk of exploitation.

Remember, maintaining strong security measures is an ongoing process that requires constant vigilance and dedication. By implementing access controls, regularly monitoring and testing networks, encrypting sensitive data, and staying up to date with security patches, you can establish and maintain a strong security posture that protects your organization and your customers from potential threats.

Tips for Building a Culture of Security and Compliance

Building a culture of security and compliance is essential for maintaining a strong security posture and ensuring ongoing PCI DSS compliance. It’s not enough to simply implement security measures and processes – your entire organization needs to be engaged and committed to protecting cardholder data. Here are some tips for building a culture of security and compliance within your organization.

1. Educate and train your staff: One of the first steps in building a culture of security and compliance is to educate and train your staff. Make sure they understand the importance of PCI DSS compliance and the role they play in maintaining it. Provide regular training sessions on security best practices, including how to handle and protect cardholder information. Encourage staff members to ask questions and stay up to date with the latest security protocols.

2. Lead by example: As a leader within your organization, it’s important to lead by example when it comes to security and compliance. Follow all the security measures yourself and communicate their importance to your team. Show them that you take security seriously and that it is a top priority for the organization.

3. Foster a culture of open communication: Encourage your staff to report any potential security vulnerabilities or incidents they come across. Create a safe and non-punitive environment where they feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their concerns. Establishing an open line of communication will help you address any issues promptly and effectively.

4. Regularly review and update policies and procedures: Security is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process. Regularly review and update your organization’s policies and procedures to ensure they reflect the latest security requirements and best practices. Communicate these updates to your staff and provide any necessary training or resources to help them implement the changes.

5. Stay informed about the latest security trends and threats: The cybersecurity landscape is constantly evolving, with new threats and vulnerabilities emerging all the time. Stay informed about the latest security trends and threats by attending industry conferences, participating in webinars, and subscribing to relevant security publications. Share this knowledge with your staff and use it to continuously improve your security measures.

What to Expect During the Actual Audit Process

Once you’ve prepared for your PCI compliance audit and gathered all the necessary documentation and evidence, it’s time for the actual audit process. This is the stage where the Qualified Security Assessor (QSA) or internal security assessor will review your organization’s controls and practices to ensure compliance with the PCI DSS requirements.

During the annual audit, you can expect the auditor to conduct a thorough examination of your cardholder data environment (CDE). They will assess the effectiveness of your security controls and processes, including your network infrastructure, policies and procedures, and employee training programs. The auditor may also conduct interviews with key personnel to verify their understanding of security practices and assess their compliance.

The audit process typically involves the following steps:

1. Entrance Conference: At the start of the audit, the auditor will meet with your organization’s representatives to discuss the scope of the audit, the timeline, and the expectations. This is an opportunity to ask any questions and clarify any concerns you may have.

2. Review of Documentation: The auditor will carefully review all the documentation and evidence you have provided to support your compliance efforts. This may include policies and procedures, network diagrams, security configurations, training records, and vulnerability scan reports. Be prepared to answer any questions and provide additional information as needed.

3. On-Site PCI DSS Assessment: In some cases, the auditor may conduct an onsite audit of your facilities. This involves physically inspecting your premises to ensure that your security controls are implemented as stated and that there are no obvious vulnerabilities or non-compliance issues.

4. Testing of Security Controls: The auditor will test your security controls to determine their effectiveness and adherence to PCI DSS requirements. This may involve conducting vulnerability scans, penetration testing, and reviewing access controls and configurations.

5. Reporting and Exit Conference: Once the audit is complete, the auditor will provide you with a detailed gap analysis Report On Compliance (ROC) that outlines their findings, including any areas of non-compliance or potential vulnerabilities. This report will serve as a roadmap for addressing any deficiencies and achieving compliance. The auditor will also conduct an exit conference to discuss their findings and provide recommendations for remediation.

Common Mistakes to Avoid During the Audit

During a PCI compliance audit, there are several common mistakes that organizations often make that can hinder their compliance efforts and potentially lead to issues with their security controls. It’s important to be aware of these mistakes and take steps to avoid them.

One common mistake is neglecting to properly document security controls and processes. Documentation is a key requirement of the PCI DSS and is essential for demonstrating compliance. Without thorough and accurate documentation, it becomes difficult to provide evidence of compliance to auditors. Make sure to maintain an up-to-date and comprehensive documentation compliance checklist that outlines your security measures, policies, and procedures.

Another mistake to avoid is failing to adequately train staff members on security practices. Staff training is crucial for maintaining PCI compliance, as employees play a vital role in protecting cardholder data. All staff members should be educated on the importance of PCI compliance, trained on security best practices, and aware of their specific roles and responsibilities. Providing ongoing training and regular reminders can help reinforce compliance and ensure that everyone in the organization is aligned with security protocols.

Additionally, organizations often make the mistake of not conducting regular vulnerability scans and penetration tests. These tests are crucial for identifying and addressing potential security vulnerabilities. By neglecting to regularly test and assess their systems, organizations leave themselves exposed to potential threats. Engaging with Approved Scanning Vendors (ASVs) and conducting these tests regularly is essential for maintaining a secure environment and meeting compliance requirements.

One other common mistake is underestimating the scope of the cardholder data environment (CDE). Organizations may mistakenly assume that only certain systems or processes are within the scope of the audit, when in fact, the entire environment needs to be assessed. It’s important to conduct a thorough assessment and clearly define the boundaries of your CDE to ensure that all relevant systems and processes are included in the audit.

Lastly, some organizations make the mistake of assuming that PCI compliance is a one-time event rather than an ongoing commitment. Compliance requires continuous monitoring, assessment, and improvement of security measures. Failing to regularly review and update security controls, policies, and procedures can lead to compliance issues and increase the risk of data breaches.

Post-Audit Best Practices for Ongoing Compliance Maintenance

Now that your PCI audit is complete, it’s important to implement and manage post-audit best practices to ensure ongoing PCI framework maintenance. These practices will help you maintain a strong level of security and protect your organization from potential data breaches. Here are some key post-audit best practices to consider:

1. Regularly Review and Update Policies and Procedures: Keep your policies and procedures up to date with the latest PCI DSS requirements. Regularly review them to ensure they align with industry standards and best practices. Make any necessary updates and communicate these changes to your staff members.

2. Conduct Internal Audits: Internal audits are an essential part of maintaining compliance. Regularly assess your organization’s security controls and processes to identify any potential vulnerabilities or areas of non-compliance. Use the findings from these audits to develop remediation plans and implement necessary changes.

3. Stay Informed about Changes: The payment card industry is constantly evolving, and new threats and vulnerabilities emerge regularly. Stay informed about the latest updates to the PCI DSS requirements, industry best practices, and any changes in the card payments landscape. Subscribing to relevant publications, attending industry conferences, and participating in webinars can help you stay ahead of these changes.

4. Engage with Your Service Providers: It’s important to ensure that your service providers undergo a PCI-compliant audit. Engage with them to assess their security controls and confirm their compliance. Obtain written confirmation of their compliance and regularly review their status to ensure ongoing compliance.

5. Implement Patch Management: Regularly update your systems and applications with the latest security patches. Many data breaches occur due to organizations failing to apply security patches in a timely manner. By implementing patch management processes, you can reduce the risk of exploitation and maintain a secure environment.

6. Leverage Third-Party Tools and Services: Consider utilizing third-party tools and services to enhance your security measures. This can include services such as intrusion detection systems, vulnerability scanning, and threat intelligence platforms. These tools and services can provide additional layers of protection and help you proactively identify and mitigate potential risks.

Implementing Best Practices

In conclusion, implementing best practices for PCI audit compliance is crucial for ensuring the security and protection of cardholder data. By following these guidelines, organizations can effectively manage the risk of data breaches and maintain a strong security posture. Understanding PCI compliance is the first step towards successful audits. Familiarizing yourself with the requirements and establishing a clear understanding of the scope of your cardholder data environment (CDE) will help you identify the necessary security controls and processes.

Key best practices for preparing for a PCI audit include conducting a thorough assessment of your organization’s compliance status, implementing strong cybersecurity measures, engaging with service providers, and establishing a culture of security and compliance within your organization. During the audit process, be prepared and organized, with all necessary documentation readily available. Engage with the auditors and provide them with the information they need to conduct a thorough assessment.

Post-audit best practices for ongoing compliance maintenance include regularly reviewing and updating policies and procedures, conducting internal audits, staying informed about changes, engaging with service providers, implementing patch management, and leveraging third-party tools and services.

By following these best practices, organizations can demonstrate their commitment to maintaining a secure environment and successfully pass their PCI audits with flying colors. Remember, compliance is an ongoing process that requires continuous monitoring and improvement to stay ahead of potential risks and vulnerabilities.


Jimmy Pfleger is a Manager of Product Solutions at AuditBoard and has over 11 years of IT Audit, Compliance & Security experience. He started his career at KPMG in the IT Advisory practice where he lead external audit & assurance activities for some of the largest companies in the St. Louis area. In addition to managing the IT Internal Audit function at both Caleres & RGA, he also spent time as the Manager of Security Compliance at Express Scripts where he built and managed the SOC2 program. His experience working across the traditional lines of defense within various organizations has given him valuable insight into how companies are truly managing IT risk. Jimmy is also a Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) and Kanban Certified (Agile).