What Is PCI Level 3?

July 10, 2024

Payment data security is critical in this day and age, and it doesn’t just apply to large businesses. Even smaller companies that process a limited number of card transactions annually are required to uphold certain standards. Here’s what to know about PCI level 3 and what it means for small- to medium-sized businesses.

Understanding PCI Level 3

What is PCI level 3? Here's our guide.

PCI level 3 applies to businesses that process 20,000 to one million transactions each year. It requires that businesses complete a self-assessment questionnaire (SAQ), conduct quarterly network scans, and implement strong security policies. While less stringent than PCI level 1 and level 2, this standard still keeps companies on their toes.

In 2023, the global average cost of a data breach was over $4 million. Regardless of business size, it pays to prioritize security. Keeping up with PCI level 3 is key to protecting your customers’ data—and your company’s finances. 

PCI Compliance Level 3 Requirements

PCI level 3 compliance requires several steps.

So what can you expect from PCI level 3? Businesses that fall within the scope of this standard must adhere to several requirements.

Protecting Cardholder Data

Protecting cardholder data is the ultimate goal of PCI compliance and the umbrella under which all other security measures fall. To do this, organizations must encrypt data transmission using advanced security protocols.

Masking the primary account number (PAN) is also crucial to safeguarding customers’ data. Using methods like tokenization and hashing, businesses can make this data unreadable and prevent nefarious parties from accessing data they shouldn’t. 

Securing Networks

PCI compliance level 3 requires that businesses secure their networks to the greatest extent possible. Most install firewalls to protect cardholder data–these control the flow of data between trusted and untrusted networks. 

When securing your network, be sure to customize configurations. Don’t just use default tools and passwords, as this makes it easy for unauthorized parties to gain access to your systems. 

Implementing Strong Access Control Measures

Access to cardholder data should be restricted on a need-to-know basis. This means that only those individuals who need that information to perform their job duties get access to data. To keep unauthorized parties out, businesses are required to identify and authenticate access to system components. 

For example, you could assign a unique ID to each person. That way, you can see exactly who accesses or attempts to access your system and take action accordingly. 

Creating an Incident Response Plan

No one wants to imagine the worst-case scenario coming to pass, but having an incident response plan can mitigate damage when disaster strikes. Your plan should include procedures for identifying and responding to incidents involving cardholder data. 

You should think of this plan as a living, breathing entity–it should grow and evolve over time as your business needs change. Regularly review and update your plan to make sure it covers new and emerging security threats.

Maintaining a Vulnerability Management Program

In addition to creating an incident response plan, PCI level 3 requires that organizations develop and maintain a vulnerability management program. A big part of that involves refreshing anti-virus software. Ensure your systems are equipped to handle various types of malicious software.

It’s important to install vendor-supplied security patches as they become available–don’t wait until a breach happens. Run vulnerability scans on a regular basis, and address any issues in a timely manner.

Monitoring and Testing Networks

Don’t assume that your networks are forever good to go once you’ve got them installed. They need to be monitored and tested on an ongoing basis to ensure they’re up to standard. You can keep a close eye on them by implementing audit trails, which help track access and respond to security breaches.

Organizations must conduct internal and external network vulnerability scans at least quarterly and after any significant change in the network. They should also perform penetration testing to identify exploitable vulnerabilities. 

What Happens During a PCI Level 3 Assessment?

What happens during a PCI 3 assessment?

PCI assessments are used to evaluate adherence to required standards. An assessment typically involves the following steps.

1. Planning

The first step is identifying the system components that interact with cardholder data. The goal is to get an accurate scope of the assessment and understand the environment in question.

2. Completing an SAQ

Next, level 3 merchants must complete an SAQ based on their specific payment processing methods. SAQs typically contain a series of yes-or-no questions that correspond with the relevant PCI DSS requirements. 

3. Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing 

Vulnerability scanning is an ongoing, long-term process, usually conducted on a quarterly basis. These scans are performed by Approved Scanning Vendors (ASVs). PCI level 3 also mandates that businesses perform annual penetration testing to spot weaknesses. These test results are then submitted as part of the overall assessment.

4. Remediation

For the next step, businesses must properly address any identified areas of non-compliance. They are required to document their efforts and thoroughly explain how they plan to prevent issues in the future.

Don’t forget to educate your team on any new measures put in place. Make sure they understand where things went wrong and how they can avoid non-compliance going forward. 

5. Presenting an Attestation of Compliance (AoC)

Finally, businesses can complete an AoC stating that they have completed the SAQ, provided the required evidence, and taken whatever steps necessary to achieve compliance. This is basically the final confirmation that they are aligned with PCI standards.

PCI Level 3 Compliance Matters—See How Compyl Can Help

The stats don’t lie: the overwhelming majority of customers prefer to pay with cards. Businesses are handling more transactions than ever before, leaving their systems open to threats if not properly secured. Thus, maintaining PCI compliance shouldn’t be an afterthought, but a priority.
The good news is you don’t have to go at it alone. Compyl’s PCI framework makes it easy to streamline compliance. Our solutions work well with popular tech solutions employed by modern organizations, seamlessly integrating with your existing tools. Request a demo to learn more about Compyl and see how we can help you achieve PCI level 3 compliance without the hassle—and read more on PCI level 4 compliance here.

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