Protect Your Customers' Data
Credit cards: What would today’s retailer do without them? If you’re like most merchants, you’ve found the ubiquitous plastic card has become the default transaction tool for purchases large and small.
There’s hidden danger, though, in being too cavalier about how your staff handles card transactions. Last year’s data breach at Target—affecting some 70 million to 110 million people—drives home the need for every retailer to be vigilant in protecting customer data.
You can be hit with costly fines and penalties if you ignore increasingly tight regulations governing the protection of credit card data, especially if your violation leads to an actual release of customer information into criminal hands.
“Merchants who store, process, or transmit credit card data need to understand they have a responsibility to protect that data,” says Mark Burnette, a partner with LBMC Security & Risk Services, a consulting firm (lbmc.com) based in Nashville, Tenn.
So who makes the rules when it comes to protecting customer data? The big boss here is the Payment Card Industry (PCI) Security Standards Council, Wakefield, Mass. (pcisecuritystandards.org). This assemblage of credit card associations has been steadily tightening the reins on runaway data by releasing regulations in the form of official standards. The latest iteration, dubbed PCI Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) further strengthens the procedures that must be instituted by merchants by the end of 2014.
Fail to follow the PCI compliance rules and you may well be targeted for damages by your “acquirer”—the bank that provided you with your merchant account. Read your contract closely and you’ll find the bank has the power of the purse: “If the acquirer finds that you have been consistently noncompliant, fines can be assessed,” says Burnette. “An actual breach of data can lead to even higher penalties.”
The extent of monetary damages depends on the size of the merchant, the size of the breach, and the number of cards involved. Penalties have ranged from $10,000 into the six figures and more.
Not to be underestimated, either, is the costly hit a publicized breach can have on a merchant’s reputation. Many consumers will be reluctant to shop at an establishment where a breach has occurred.
Perhaps the greatest motivation for toeing the line is the threat of losing the merchant account itself. “The card association may take away your ability to accept credit cards at all,” says Burnette. “That can be extremely costly to any merchant.”
While failure to follow mandated data protection guidelines is foolish, the good news in all this is you can take positive steps to minimize risk.
Start by drawing up a statement of standard operating procedures (SOP) for everyone in your organization. “Make sure you have a clear written policy about how to handle credit cards,” says Burnette. “And, make sure your employees have been educated on the policy. Bring up the topic regularly in your staff meetings.”
Your SOP must address the critical need of keeping sensitive customer numbers under wraps. “Where the merchant is most vulnerable is in the accidental mishandling of card information,” says Burnette. “Suppose, for example, an employee takes an order over the phone, jots down the card number on a piece of paper, and later drops the paper into the trash instead of a shredder. That violates the PCI and is bad business practice.”
Another good rule is to keep the credit card in the hands of the customer as long as possible. “Employees should quickly process the card and return it,” says Burnette. “This will keep the card from being accidentally grabbed—or from having its number written down—by someone else.”
The right hardware can be as important as the right procedures. Have you been using the same POS equipment for many years? It may be time to replace it. “Some retailers still have legacy equipment they don’t even realize is capturing cardholder information that can be compromised,” says Paul Rianda, an attorney in Irvine, Calif. (riandalaw.com). “In contrast, if merchants use newer equipment, and use it correctly, there should be no way to lose cardholder information.”
Computer systems face special challenges: “You need to establish rules about passwords and about access to the computer system,” says Burnette. “Each employee should have a unique security code which they are forbidden to share with other employees or even with managers. The passwords should allow access only to those sections of the database required to do an individual’s job.”
You should use only hardware and software approved by the PCI Security Standards Council (approved vendor lists are available at pcisecuritystandards.org). Make sure you are using a firewall, and that your wireless router is password protected and uses encryption. And change the default hardware passwords to complex ones.
As the world of electronic commerce has become more complicated, regulations become more demanding. “There are over 255 individual requirements for PCI compliance,” says Burnette. “All of them have to be met. There is no wiggle room.” Little wonder that merchants are sidestepping the requisite procedures by farming everything out to a third party organization such as an ISO. “Offloading responsibility to a third party is a good solution,” says Don Hartley, a consultant with Savannah, Georgia-based Tata Consultancy Services (tcs.com).
Don’t get trapped, though, by a false sense of security. You can outsource the operational duties for carrying out PCI compliance, but you cannot outsource your responsibility for protecting customer information. If something goes wrong, you will be assumed guilty.
To protect yourself from fines and penalties, make sure your contract specifies the third party’s responsibilities for setting up and maintaining computer systems that comply with PCI standards. You should also ask the third party to provide an annual “PCI report on compliance” signed off by a qualified security assessor (QSA). This should be done once a year. Both these steps will help protect you if the third party violates regulations.
Need to know
Many of the protective steps suggested here derive from a broader maxim near and dear to the hearts of security people everywhere: Retain only the information you need. “Follow the rule that says ‘if you do not need customer information, you should not keep it,’” says Burnette.
Education is the first step to safety. Many smaller merchants are not aware of the duty to protect customer data, nor of the continually morphing rules. Ignorance of the law, as always, is no excuse. Taking the basic steps in this article will reduce your risk considerably. Says Burnette: “Make sure you have a written policy in place, train your employees properly, and make sure your computer system is PCI compliant.”
Get more help
Retailers who fail to protect their customers’ credit card data are playing with fire. “If you make a mistake, you may incur penalties of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars, depending on how many cards were compromised,” says Paul Rianda, an attorney in Irvine, Calif. (riandalaw.com). He points to the experiences of two recent clients: A card association pulled $600,000 out of the account of one merchant who was hacked. A second merchant, a sports apparel retailer, was fined $13 million.
This article presents some common operational guidelines to protect yourself from loss. Additionally, seek the guidance of your attorney, your bank, and your security advisor.
You can find more information about PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliance from the website of the PCI Security Standards Council, www.pcisecuritystandards.org. Click the “For Merchants” button for helpful articles. Click on the “PCI Standards & Documents” button to access the latest iteration of the PCI Data Security Standards, PCI DSS v. 3.0.
First published in Vol. 28 No. 6 of Retailing Insight. © 2014 Continuity Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.