PCI DSS Assessment: A Quick Guide

Payal Wadhwa

Payal Wadhwa

Jan 20, 2024

PCI DSS Assessment

For first-timers, it can feel intimidating to prepare for a PCI DSS assessment. There’s a sense of ambiguity on where to begin, multiple requirements to absorb, and implementation gaps to fill. The larger goal is not to just get compliant but to safeguard cardholder’s data from security threats. A PCI DSS assessment however, acts as a crucial step in becoming a secure enterprise.

This blog is a quick go-to resource that can help you prepare for a PCI DSS assessment. Let’s get started. 

What is PCI DSS assessment?

PCI DSS assessment is an assessment of an organization’s compliance with the data security standards set by PCI Security Standards Council (PCI SSC) applicable to merchants, payment processors, and service providers. The council is a collaboration between Visa, Mastercard, American Express, JCB and Discover credit card brands.

PCI DSS is a globally accepted security protocol that applies to any business that collects, records, manages, or exchanges payment card information like confidential payment data or cardholder’s personal details.

How to prepare for PCI DSS assessment?

From planning the assessment to implementation, scheduling, and post-assessment measures, every step of the PCI DSS compliance assessment is crucial. Needless to say, it’s easier said than done.

Here’s how to prepare for a PCI DSS compliance assessment:

Conduct a security risk review

In order to understand how close your organization aligns to the PCI DSS requirements, an understanding of the current risks in your environment is essential. So, it becomes necessary to conduct a security risk assessment. A security risk assessment involves the following steps:

  • Pinpointing the systems that handle payment card information
  • Tracing the flow of data through these systems
  • Identifying the vulnerabilities that could be exploited
  • Segregating risks based on the criticality

This will set the stage for the assessment process. 

Before you get into understanding the requirements, do take a look at the PCI DSS SAQ eligibility checklist below:

Understand the requirements

Once you have assessed your organization’s security posture, cross reference it against the PCI DSS requisites. Here’s a quick overview of what it covers:

  1. Installing and upkeeping secure network systems
  2. Refraining from using default settings
  3. Protecting sensitive cardholder data
  4. Safeguarding Transmission through encryption controls
  5. Employing defenses against malware infections
  6. Deploying effective security mechanisms
  7. Restricting access to confidential cardholder data
  8. Allocating unique ids for computer access
  9. Regulating physical access to cardholder data
  10. Tracking network resources and cardholder data access
  11. Testing effectiveness of security systems regularly
  12. Creating and maintaining information security policy

Need a PCI DSS checklist? Take a look here

Uncover gaps in compliance

Comparing the risk assessment report against the requirement checklist will help identify compliance areas that need to be worked upon. The identified gaps can be segregated into procedural gaps, administrative gaps, and policy and control gaps. It is essential to address each of these gaps for better preparedness against PCI DSS assessment.

Establish centrally managed documentation

A centrally managed documentation is a never-failing hack for ensuring consistency and standardization in process establishment and implementation. The policies and procedures laid down act like a training tool for employees. These also help create accountability by setting out clear expectations for each role. It is equally important to update the documentation whenever there are changes in business policies or regulatory requirements.

Let stakeholders participate

A common mistake that organizations preparing for PCI DSS assessments do is leaving its responsibility solely on the IT department. But it is in fact a collaborative effort of multiple stakeholders.

The accounting department is responsible for managing payment card transactions, merchant IDs, etc. Server admins and website developers are required to monitor vulnerabilities. The non-technical stakeholders need to show their involvement by ensuring general security best practices like antivirus installation, and password protection, etc., the participation of the entire team expedites the PCI DSS assessment and certification process significantly.

Schedule penetration tests

Ideally, the penetration tests must be scheduled at least two to three months prior to the final PCI compliance assessment. This ensures that there’s enough time for spotting the vulnerabilities, assessing their severity and chalk out a mitigation plan. A reliable and trained internal source or third-party vendors can conduct the penetration tests.

Commence problem-solving 

Timely penetration tests will lay the foundation for initiating remediation and ensure that there’s nothing unresolved from the organization’s end. The detected susceptibilities can be addressed in an efficient manner before scheduling the final assessment. This will eliminate the need to move back and forth at the time of the on-prem assessment.

Schedule Final Assessment

Once there’s surety about remediation steps supported by evidence for each corrective action, proceed with scheduling the final assessment. The final PCI DSS compliance assessment is conducted by a Qualified Security Assessor (QSA) on premises. Remote assessments are also carried out when on-site assessments are not viable. 

Post-assessment monitoring

A detailed post-assessment report is received by the organization after the final assessment. Any further corrective actions if required must be initiated. PCI DSS is a constantly evolving standard. The latest version 4.0 was released on March 31, 2022. This makes post-assessment monitoring and surveillance incredibly important to retain certification.

Why is the PCI DSS assessment important?

PCI DSS assessment works as a foundation for delineating steps to establish a security program and avoid potential breaches. But even though the is mandatory for organizations handling payment card data, it is necessary for reasons other than avoiding digital fraud. 
Here’s why it’s important:

Safeguards against data breaches

PCI DSS assessments are usually conducted annually. This helps enhance employee awareness on security risks and makes it easy to implement security controls. With an established monitoring system, any weaknesses that can possibly be exploited are easily identified. All these measures strengthen the security infrastructure and act as a shield against data breaches.

Helps establish security best practices

By providing comprehensive guidelines for protection of payment card data, the PCI DSS assessment lays down a strong foundation for security policy and best practices. It ensures that organizations are able to identify any weaknesses in their data security controls and address them on an ongoing basis.

Mitigates legal and financial risks

PCI DSS non-compliance comes with the risks of legal exposures and monetary consequences. The penalties can range from $5000 to $100000 per month. If you own a small business, non-compliance can derail your business. A PCI DSS assessment helps avoid any fines, penalties, or other legal costs that come with non-compliance.

Lends competitive advantage

Since data security is a key element for any business handling financial information, a PCI DSS assessment acts as a tangible assurance for clients. It’s easier to sign up an enterprise client when the organization is backed by a PCI DSS certification.

Amplifies customer trust

The PCI DSS assessment acts as a hallmark of commitment to security and helps boost customer confidence. It’s easier for them to trust the organization since there are reduced risks of data breaches. This in turn is a crucial factor in building credibility in the market.

Prepare for PCI assessments better with Sprinto

All in all, the PCI DSS assessment process involves comprehensive steps with a unique set of nuances. It can take months if done manually. And bypassing any of the steps can cause more damage than good. 

The best and most effective way to fast-track the assessment process is automating PCI compliance. Sprinto’s readymade policy templates, streamlined PCI DSS compliance workflows, and automated evidence collection helps organizations assessment ready in weeks. 

Looking to breeze through the PCI DSS assessment? Speak to Sprinto’s experts today.


How often do you need to do a PCI DSS assessment?

The merchants that process over 6 million card transactions fall under level 1 businesses under the PCI DSS standard and are required to undergo an assessment yearly. Level 2,3 and 4 businesses falling below the 6 million category are required to fill a self-assessment questionnaire and Attestation of Compliance (AOC) once a year.

Who can perform PCI assessments?

PCI DSS assessments are governed by the PCI SSC and can be performed by a certified Qualified Security Assessor (QSA) and Approved Scanning Vendor (ASV).

What are the types of PCI DSS assessments?

Broadly, there can be two types of assessments: Self-assessment questionnaire (SAQ) and on-site assessments.

What are self-assessment questionnaires?

 SAQs are a tool for self-evaluation to help merchants discover their level of compliance with PCI DSS standards. There are 9 types of SAQs with yes/no questions depending on the level of compliance and magnitude of business.

Do organizations using third-party processors have to be PCI DSS compliant?

Yes, organizations using third-party processors still carry the responsibility of protecting sensitive payment card data and need to be compliant. Having a third-party processor does reduce the risk involved but does not eliminate the need for getting compliant.

Payal Wadhwa

Payal Wadhwa

Payal is your friendly neighborhood compliance whiz! She turns perplexing compliance lingo into actionable advice about keeping your digital business safe and savvy. When she isn’t saving virtual worlds, she’s penning down poetic musings or lighting up local open mics. Cyber savvy by day, poet by night!

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