Managing Your PCI Audit (Part 1)

Managing Your PCI Audit & Compliance Blog! By Michael Nelson – PCI Practice Manager

PCI DSS compliance has now become a household name for security and IT departments worldwide, potentially having significant impact on those organizations that store or process credit cards. According to the PCI Security Standards Council “All merchants, whether small or large, need to be PCI compliant.”

While the security requirements are the same for all covered organizations, the method of proving compliance depends on the number and value of annual credit card transactions. For merchants processing more than 6 million transactions a year, this means an on-site audit by a Qualified Security Assessor (QSA). For more information on PCI DSS please visit

For many organizations the term “PCI Audit” seems to be shrouded in mystery. Having facilitated many PCI audits for large organizations, I have probably been asked every question imaginable in regards to PCI. What exactly is involved? What is my Cardholder Data Environment? How much information must I provide?

As an adviser I have always tried to impress upon my clients the need to understand and proactively manage the PCI Audit process, and in particular to be prepared for onsite interviews by the QSAs. Many of the staff members that the auditor will be interviewing (e.g. office PC users, call center operators, systems administrators) may view the auditor; either as an adversary, from whom as much information should be withheld as possible, or as a friend, to whom all information should be provided when requested. In fact, neither of these positions is appropriate and both can lead to trouble for the organization being audited.

Proactive PCI Audit management is the cornerstone to a successful audit process. While many businesses simply do not have the time, staff, or trained personnel to prepare for all aspects of a PCI audit, I recommend finding qualified external resources to help the organization down this path. It is important to remember that while most QSAs are reasonable and professional organizations they are not employees and maintain significantly different roles, responsibilities, and organizational insight.

Managing the PCI audit carefully will help reduce time, costs, and operational impacts to the organization. At a minimum audit management will refine the scope and keep answers to audit questions on point. Keys to a successful audit and meaningful results are to appropriately prepare staff, set expectations, and sharpen scope. Expert resources to manage the process can add significant benefit to the organization and potentially reduce the cost of compliance.

The PCI audit process consists of many areas, however we will be focusing on the “on-site Interview” portion. The first step in the onsite interview is preparation. Once you have chosen your QSA find out exactly when the auditor will be on site, what activities the auditor will be conducting, and what documentation they will require. Knowing all of this will help you to understand exactly what level of detail the auditor is looking for, as well as which team members will be asked to take part in onsite interviews. Make sure to schedule the auditor’s on-site presence when there is the minimum impact on your business operations.

PCI audits may become less effective and minimally productive due to a lack of preparation on the client side. Inappropriate preparations may lead to a host of issues including the over exposure of information, withholding or attempts to hide information by well intended but ill advised staff, or as well as inaccurate and or inconsistent answers.   Theses issues among others can cause significant problems and expense down the road for the organization under audit. Preparing each staff member before the onsite meeting is vital to a successful, efficient, and effective audit.

Some examples of staff interview preparation includes understanding exactly what is meant by “Cardholder Data Environment” and what this actually means to the organization. The organization and the auditor must agree on the scope prior to the commencement of the audit. Only information directly related to the CDE should be provided in interviews. Auditors should be expected to provide their interview questions for review beforehand, comply with an interview schedule, and should not interview additional staff members who may confuse the issues or provide inappropriate answers. It is the responsibility of the individual managing the audit process to ensure the interview is on topic, within scope, and with the appropriate staff.

My next blog I will cover actual questions that have been asked as well as the proper way to answer them. I will also dive deeper into the audit process.  Until then please contact us here to learn more about how we can assist your organization to manage the compliance process.

See my next blog post here – Managing Your PCI Audit & Compliance part 2 – preparing for the QSA visit.

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