Sending Credit Card Details by Email? Avoid Costly PCI Violations

Got an urgent email from a customer with their credit card number? You might think it’s no big deal, but read this before hitting reply!

Email seems harmless enough for quick communication needs. Except sending sensitive customer payment information like credit cards via standard emailsystems can land your business in a complex maze of compliance issues, risky vulnerabilities and massive penalties prescribed by the Payment Card Industry (PCI).

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • Why emailing card data violates PCI standards and threatens security
  • The requirements prohibiting unencrypted cardholder information transmission
  • Whether email can ever fully support PCI compliance
  • Alternative communication methods to eliminate email’s risks
  • Strategies and best practices for handling PCI-restricted data properly
  • How to balance air-tight security with optimized communication for employees and customers
  • Key takeaways to steer clear of non-compliance landmines

If the occasional credit card number passes through your inboxes today, you need to rethink that strategy immediately. Let’s explore how securing communication and collaboration works hand-in-hand with achieving PCI compliance. Onward!

Why Emailing Card Data Puts You at Risk

Sending sensitive customer payment information like credit card numbers via standard email might seem harmless. But doing so can actually jeopardize your business’s security and PCI compliance in multiple ways.

Email Communications Are Not Secure by Default

Email was never designed with privacy and security in mind. When you hit send, your message traverses through multiple servers before reaching the recipient’s inbox. At each hop, the email data is unencrypted and could potentially be intercepted or read by:

Your message is broken up into tiny packets as it travels across the public internet, similar to sending a postcard. Anyone with basic tools can “sniff” the traffic and reconstruct confidential details.

So unless both sides are using sophisticated end-to-end encryption (rarely the case), consider email as public communication. The convenience simply doesn’t justify the huge risk for customer payment data.

Interception Opens Door to Fraud & Fines

With email interception trivial for bad actors, you hand over customers’ sensitive card details to fraudsters by emailing them. The impact of a single stolen credit card number might seem small, but it adds up across thousands of customers.

Each stolen card you are responsible for could be used for:

  • Fraudulent online purchases
  • Fake card cloning
  • Identity theft
  • Account takeovers

Besides angry customers and PR headaches from a breach, your business must foot the bill for any losses attributed to the leaked cards. Expect heavy fines and your card processing rights revoked permanently.

Also, emailing unencrypted card data likely violates your merchant service agreement. Vendors like Stripe can issue fines of $15,000 per violation for compromising PCI compliance in the terms of service. Ouch!

Email Systems Become Part of Your Compliance Scope

When unencrypted payment card information enters your email system, you’ve now expanded the scope of your Cardholder Data Environment. Parts of your infrastructure become directly subject to PCI requirements like:

  • Encryption for data at rest
  • Access controls and logging
  • Quarterly network scans
  • Annual auditor assessments

As a result, the costs and difficulty of maintaining PCI compliance grow. New email-related vulnerabilities also emerge that put you further at risk of standards violations.

Given email’s weak security foundation, including card data brings much more trouble than it’s worth. Seek alternative communication methods that keep customers secure and satisfaction high.

PCI Standards Prohibit Unencrypted Card Data via Email

The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) explicitly forbids sending sensitive cardholder information over email and other messaging apps. Violating these requirements puts your business at risk of fines, revoked processing privileges, and worse.

Requirements for Securing Data in Transit

PCI DSS lays out 12 comprehensive requirements for protecting card data. Two directly address the need to encrypt information in transit:

  • Requirement 4.1 states you must not transmit credit card details over public networks like the internet unless it is encrypted. This means any email, website form, live chat, etc.
  • Requirement 4.2 prohibits sending cardholder data via end-user technologies like email, SMS, instant messaging without strong full-message encryption.

Both stipulate that standard email is far from secure enough for customer payment information. Even if the transport uses TLS encryption, the email body and attachments remain exposed.

The PCI Security Standards Council also mandates you detail all measures taken to secure card data during transit. Using email as-is won’t cut it under their strict standards.

No PANs or Card Details in Messaging Apps

Primary Account Numbers (PANs), meaning full credit card numbers, have additional handling and usage requirements under PCI DSS:

  • Cannot be sent via end-user apps like email and IM unless fully encrypted
  • Must be masked (only show last 4 digits) when displayed electronically
  • Should be truncated and irreversibly destroyed when no longer needed

Even personal details like names, expiration dates, and billing addresses count as sensitive information. So it’s not just the card number at risk over email.

Bottom line – without hardening your email infrastructure and workflows, simply do not send any customer PANs, card details or related data.

Failing Compliance Means Steep Penalties

If auditors uncover unencrypted cardholder data traversing email or web systems, your business will take a heavy blow:

  • Fines of $100,000+ for security violations
  • Revocation of your merchant processing account
  • Blacklisting by card brands like Visa, Mastercard, etc.
  • Costly systems overhaul to meet compliance
  • Legal action and lawsuits from breach incidents

Plus, you’ll need to cover fraud losses from any stolen cards along with response costs and reputational damage.

For a small business, termination of your merchant account often spells the end of the road. Don’t let inadequate email security practices sink all your hard work.

Better to have secure, compliant infrastructure before an incident happens. Protect the trust customers place in you to handle their sensitive payment information responsibly.

Can Email Ever be PCI Compliant?

Given how profoundly email clashes with PCI requirements, you might think it can never comply. But with the right implementation, email can achieve compliance to transmit card data securely.

End-to-End Encryption Offers Protection

The only way for email to satisfy PCI encryption rules is implementing end-to-end encryption (E2EE).

With E2EE, your messages get encrypted at the originating device before transmission. Then they are only decrypted once received on the endpoint recipient’s device. Not even email servers in between can “read” the secured message.

This protects card data and other sensitive details from interception across the entire email delivery chain. Messages remain private between sender and receiver exclusively.

E2EE integration with email requires:

  • Public and private cryptographic keys to encode/decode messages
  • Email client plugins on both ends supporting end-to-end encryption
  • Properly validating users and devices

When set up correctly, E2EE email achieves compliance by preventing unauthorized access to cardholder information in transit.

Extra Costs, Complexity to Maintain Security

A downside to encrypted email for PCI compliance is the additional costs involved:

  • New email server infrastructure or hosted email services
  • Deployment and management of encryption apps
  • Key management and access controls
  • Potential recipient compatibility issues
  • Increased support and training for employees

Further, both sender and receiver must adopt encryption for security to work. You remain at risk if card data is emailed to standard, unsecured accounts.

To be compliant, your business must shoulder the burden of enforcing proper email security at all times. This makes scaling difficult compared to alternatives like tokenization.

Shared Responsibility with Recipients

A core tenet of compliance is limiting your liability for breaches. But with unencrypted email, you necessarily depend on recipients properly securing messages you share.

If the recipient mishandles your email with PCI data, copies it elsewhere, etc. you are still responsible for the security lapse. Their mistake hurts your compliance status.

That’s a tough position compared to using compliant apps or platforms where only your business controls access and usage. With email, your compliance depends partly on users outside of your control.

If email is truly necessary for card data, implement encryption to reduce risks. But also tighten policies, training and controls around its use internally to satisfy PCI requirements.

Alternative Methods to Share Details Securely

Rather than jeopardize compliance and security over email, safer alternatives exist to communicate card data with customers and partners.

Tokenization Allows Communication Without Risk

A powerful approach is using tokenization to replace real credit card numbers with randomly-generated tokens. These tokens serve as secure references to the original payment information.

For example, let’s say a support rep needs a customer’s card number to process a refund. The customer emails the rep with the tokenized card like:

Token: 9273491958394859

That token ID gets mapped to the real card details in a secured vault that only authorized systems can access. The tokenized ID reveals nothing about the actual card number.

Now the rep can process the refund through your payment system using the token, without ever handling or storing the raw card data.

With tokenization:

  • The tokenized card details can be safely emailed without being valuable to attackers.
  • Your business never retains card data, only reference tokens.
  • You stay entirely outside PCI compliance scope.

Link-Based Sharing Maintains Security

Another method is using one-time shareable links to give access to card information or related records.

For example, you could generate a unique link to a customer receipt hosted on a compliant platform. Email the link to the customer to view their transaction details securely, without including any raw card data.

The link grants one-time access and optionally can expire after a set duration. All activity is logged and encrypted end-to-end.

For added protection, the link could require additional authentication via:

  • Email confirmation
  • Multi-factor login
  • One-time access code

Properly implemented links let you share transaction data without ever being liable for it in PCI terms.

Leverage Compliant Platforms for Transfer

Finally, rely on PCI-certified platforms designed to securely share and manage sensitive documents and data.

Solutions like secure file sharing, e-signature, and managed file transfer offer:

  • End-to-end encryption for all documents and messages
  • Granular access controls and permissions
  • Complete visibility into user activity
  • Integrations with business apps and workflows

These help you collaborate while staying compliant – no need for risky email attachments!

With the right platforms in place, you can work and share data more flexibly without adding to PCI scope or compliance costs.

The bottom line is why force high-risk email to work when purpose-built alternatives better suit secure card data communications? Evaluate options that help customers and business users while protecting your compliance standing.

Strategies to Remain Compliant

While emailing card details is clearly risky, your customers may occasionally send payment information regardless of the channel’s security. Staying compliant requires vigilance and protocols to handle mistakes.

Educate Customers Against Sending via Email

The first step is properly educating your audience not to include sensitive data in emails or other unsecured channels. Do this across all your touchpoints:

  • Website: Add warnings on contact, support and payment pages advising customers not to email card information. Make compliant alternatives clear.
  • Forms: Default forms to disable free-text fields where customers could paste card data. Replace with pre-defined selectable options.
  • Email: Tailor your email signatures, templates and confirmations to reinforce your security policy.
  • Chatbots: Program conversational flows to inform customers when they cross the line into prohibited topics.
  • Humans: Equip support reps to courteously caution customers against card data in email/chat and provide compliant options.
  • Ticketing: Automatically scan new tickets for PCI violations using keyword detection and redact if found.
  • Browse: Monitor web traffic and social media to find users requesting insecure contact methods. Reach out with guidance.
  • Signage: Post notices in physical business locations if applicable. Remind visitors not to email card numbers.

With consistent messaging across channels, most customers will understand and comply with proper data handling.

Have Protocol to Handle Any Mistakes

Despite education attempts, some customers will inevitably send card data via email, chat or other unsecured mediums. Your protocols should ensure:

  • No employee ever responds via the same insecure channel with card data exposed. This will only proliferate copies.
  • The incoming violation is reported to an information security or PCI compliance representative.
  • Your team works to immediately purge any card details from insecure channels:
  • Delete prohibited emails/attachments completely from all mail systems.
  • Clear unencrypted chat/messaging history containing card data.
  • Document each occurrence and actions taken.
  • Follow up with the customer by phone or separate compliant message, reminding them of security protocols. Log/track all communications.
  • If possible, automate scanning all communications for potential PCI violations using DLP, classifiers, etc. Flag suspect messages for rapid response.

Delete and Secure Data Sent Accidentally

When a customer mistakenly emails card information, you must act quickly to isolate and destroy the unsecured data:

  • Remove the data from the email and attachments. Open the message in an editor and permanently delete the card details.
  • Empty the email from all local folders (inbox, sent, deleted, etc.) on employee devices and servers.
  • Ensure all web and local caches are cleared containing the email artifacts.
  • Check if the information reached any additional systems like CRM, support portals, etc. Purge any copies found.
  • Confirm no local versions were unintentionally stored, printed, or otherwise retained besides the original email.
  • Log each instance of improper card data receipt and the steps taken to isolate and destroy it.

Only after fully removing all traces of the unprotected card data can you safely respond to the customer by a separate, compliant channel.

Know When to Refresh Validation and Training

PCI compliance isn’t a one-time checklist – it requires constant vigilance as systems, employees and threats evolve. Set proactive triggers for re-validation and training:

Update Internal Processes Annually

  • Review policies and procedures for securing payment systems and data flows.
  • Look for potential gaps or risks not covered in current standards like new tech.
  • Refresh all employee training on latest best practices for handling data.
  • Log all validation activities and policy reviews.

When adding new systems, migrate employee roles, etc.

  • Revalidate anything interacting with the card data lifecycle – is it fully compliant?
  • Ensure employees tasked with data are properly trained on specific systems.
  • Update policy and training documentation.

After suspected or confirmed security incidents

  • Review policies, capabilities and controls thought to be bypassed.
  • Identify and address vulnerabilities that allowed the incident.
  • Recheck all systems end-to-end for potential compromise.
  • Retrain employees across the board as needed.

See compliance as an ongoing improvement process, not a point-in-time accomplishment. Invest in your PCI posture continuously.

Achieve Email Compliance with the Right Partner

For businesses that need compliant email to share sensitive data like card details, partnering with the right vendor is key. Prioritize robust encryption, security capabilities, and governance to satisfy PCI requirements.

Solutions for Secure Shared Access

Look for platforms that allow controlled, audited access to data without exposing it via email. Capabilities like:

  • Secure portals for sharing private documents and information instead of attachments
  • Managed file transfer with end-to-end encryption, logging, and compliance certs
  • Digital rights management to restrict document usage after sharing
  • Secure online forms to gather info directly from customers

The goal is to collaborate securely without once putting restricted data in email.

Built-In Security and Encryption

For compliant email itself, the provider should offer powerful protections like:

  • Default end-to-end and in-transit encryption for all messages and data
  • Advanced threat protection against phishing, business email compromise, malware, etc.
  • Archiving with tamper-proofing, retention policies and legal hold
  • Tight access controls for senders and recipients
  • Integrations with data loss prevention, records management and other security systems

Email should have security controls on par with regulated platforms like banking and healthcare.

Tools to Govern Use Across Company

Your partner should also provide visibility and control to manage email compliance firm-wide:

Detailed Analytics and Reporting

  • Track emails and attachments with PCI data or other keywords
  • Alert for any policy violations or improper data sharing
  • Dashboards to monitor program effectiveness and employee behaviors
  • Detailed activity audit trails for compliance reporting
  • Tools to sanitize reports before external sharing

Email Filtering and Monitoring

  • Automatically scan all internal and external emails for PCI violations
  • Filter prohibited content and file types
  • Quarantine, encrypt or block risky messages
  • Alert admins and employees on issues in real-time
  • Gain insight into security gaps and problem areas With the right oversight tools, you can systematically remove email risks across the business.

Stay Compliant While Optimizing Communication

Being compliant doesn’t have to mean creating business obstacles. With the right strategy, you can satisfy PCI requirements while enhancing – not limiting – communication.

Maintain Security Without Sacrificing Ease

The optimal solution improves security without getting in the way of users and use cases:

  • Work across standard desktop and mobile email clients – no specialized apps or plugins.
  • Allow transparent encrypted email between internal employee and external partners.
  • Provide user-friendly classification to tag messages containing PCI data.
  • Enable employees to effortlessly share links or portals instead of attachments.
  • Secure customer data automatically upon receipt – no manual oversight needed.

The more seamless the protections, the higher adoption will be. Friction leads employees to bypass security, exposing the organization to compliance violations and incidents.

Support Users to Prevent Shadow IT Risks

Another priority is equipping employees to handle data properly:

  • Implement contextual nudges in email to caution about PCI data entry.
  • Provide self-service secure portals for employees to share documents easily.
  • Automate and simplify proper data handling, like encrypted attachments.
  • Train employees on threats along with compliant tools available to them.
  • Reward and recognize employees exhibiting desired security behaviors.

Empowered employees can stop risks at the source, rather than force the security team into constant cleanup duty after mistakes are made.

Enhance Trust by Protecting Customers

Most importantly, remember that compliance demonstrates your commitment to your customers’ interests:

  • Customers value security – study after study shows it’s a top factor in vendor selection.
  • Reduce risks that lead to breach incidents, protecting customers’ privacy.
  • Prevent devastating credit card fraud that erodes customers’ trust and finances.
  • Reassure customers you take payment security just as seriously as they do.

Rather than a burden, view compliance as an invaluable asset for proving you deserve customers’ business. Invest in the tools and processes that earn their confidence.

By taking a customer-centric approach, you transform security from an IT issue into a strategic business opportunity. Compliance becomes your competitive edge.

Recap of Email Security Needed for PCI Compliance

Let’s review the key takeaways about securing email for PCI compliance.
Emailing card data is high-risk by default

  • Email provides no inherent security for sensitive personal information.
  • Messages are trivial for attackers to intercept over the public internet.
  • Your customers’ payment details end up in hackers’ hands.

PCI standards explicitly prohibit sending card data by email

  • Requirements forbid open transmission of cardholder information.
  • Primary Account Numbers cannot be emailed without encryption.
  • Entire email systems fall into scope for compliance controls.

End-to-end encryption can support compliant email

  • Encryption must safeguard messages in transit and at rest.
  • Significant expense and expertise needed to properly implement and manage.
  • Still depends partly on recipients’ security posture.

Alternatives like tokenization and secure platforms remove email risks

  • Tokenize card details into secure reference tokens for safe sharing.
  • Use links and portals to share information without attachments.
  • Rely on PCI-certified secure platforms purpose-built for card data.

Be ready to handle any improper emails received

  • Have ironclad intake procedures to isolate and destroy unprotected data sent by mistake.
  • Educate customers before and after errors on using proper secure channels.

Pick providers focused on compliance and governance

  • Email services with baked-in encryption, security controls and reporting.
  • Tools to control data usage, create audit trails and sanitize reporting.

Take a continuous, customer-centric approach to optimizing compliance

  • Make it effortless for employees to stay compliant supporting customers.
  • Emphasize that compliance protects client relationships and instills trust.
  • Maintain security across changes to systems, processes and personnel.

Prioritize open communication without compromising compliance

  • Enable seamless data protections without hampering productivity.
  • Give employees compliant collaboration tools and training to use them.
  • Find partners as concerned with user experience as compliance.

The risks of improvised email security make compliance an uphill battle. Purpose-built solutions relieve the burden while advancing the business. With the right foundation, you can communicate freely without sacrificing customer trust or PCI standing.

Key Takeaways

  • Emailing unencrypted cardholder data violates PCI compliance standards and puts your business at high risk of fines, breach incidents and blacklisting.
  • Requirements prohibit sending Primary Account Numbers and related customer details over unsecured email, messaging apps and public internet channels.
  • With proper end-to-end encryption email can comply, but at increased cost, complexity and shared responsibility with recipients.
  • Alternative communication methods like tokenized data, secure portals and managed file transfer remove PCI risks and email limitations.
  • Have rigorous intake procedures to immediately isolate and destroy any card data accidentally received via unsecured mediums like email.
  • Select solutions allowing compliant data sharing without sacrificing user experience or hampering communication.
  • Make compliance a collective effort through employee training, governance tools and user-friendly security.
  • Continuously invest in your PCI security posture – it’s an ongoing process, not a one-time milestone.
  • Rather than a constraint, view robust data protection as a way to build customer trust and competitive advantage.

The bottom line is uncompromising data security and seamless communication aren’t mutually exclusive. With the right platforms and approach, both can thrive in parallel.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is emailing credit card information allowed under PCI standards?
No, the PCI DSS explicitly prohibits sending Primary Account Numbers or related cardholder data via unencrypted email or messaging apps.

What are the penalties for improper emailing of card data?

Potential penalties for non-compliant email security include fines up to $100,000 per month, revoked merchant services, mandated security overhauls, legal liability and blacklisting across card brands.

When does email require encryption for PCI compliance?

Any email containing credit card Primary Account Numbers or other sensitive card data must utilize end-to-end encryption to comply with PCI standards.

Is email encryption sufficient for PCI compliance?

Proper implementation of encryption can satisfy the PCI DSS. However, it still carries risks if recipients mishandle decrypted data, along with cost/complexity burdens.

What alternative communication methods meet PCI compliance?

Tokenized card data, secure portals, managed file transfer, e-signatures and other purpose-built platforms avoid PCI risks and issues with email.

How should businesses handle improper emailing of card data?

Have robust intake procedures to immediately isolate, delete and destroy any raw card details received via unsecured email channels.

What security features help govern and audit email for compliance?

Prioritize platforms with strong reporting, analytics, controls and visibility tools to manage email usage firm-wide.

How can businesses balance compliance with good communication?

Emphasize seamless, user-friendly security, provide compliant collaboration options and stress the customer benefits of data protection.

Does PCI compliance require one-time or ongoing efforts?

Compliance requires continuous training, validation and improvement across personnel, processes and technology as threats evolve.

How does email PCI compliance integrate with other security programs?

A holistic data security strategy ties together PCI, acceptable use policy, incident response, data loss prevention, end-user education and more.