Jordan Robertson, AP Technology Writer
Every time you swipe your credit card and wait for the transaction to be approved, sensitive data including your name and account number are ferried from store to bank through computer networks, each step a potential opening for hackers.
And while you may take steps to protect yourself against identity theft, an Associated Press investigation has found the banks and other companies that handle your information are not being nearly as cautious as they could.
The government leaves it to card companies to design security rules that protect the nation's 50 billion annual transactions. Yet an examination of those industry requirements explains why so many breaches occur: The rules are cursory at best and all but meaningless at worst, according to the AP's analysis of data breaches dating to 2005.
It means every time you pay with plastic, companies are gambling with your personal data. If hackers intercept your numbers, you'll spend weeks straightening your mangled credit, though you can't be held liable for unauthorized charges. Even if your transaction isn't hacked, you still lose: Merchants pass to all their customers the costs they incur from fraud.
More than 70 retailers and payment processors have disclosed breaches since 2006, involving tens of millions of credit and debit card numbers, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. Meanwhile, many others likely have been breached and didn't detect it. Even the companies that had the payment industry's top rating for computer security, a seal of approval known as PCI compliance, have fallen victim to huge heists.
Companies that are not compliant with the PCI standards — including one in 10 of the medium-sized and large retailers in the United States — face fines but are left free to process credit and debit card payments. Most retailers don't have to endure security audits, but can evaluate themselves.
Credit card providers don't appear to be in a rush to tighten the rules. They see fraud as a cost of doing business and say stricter security would throw sand into the gears of the payment system, which is built on speed, convenience and low cost.
That is of little consolation to consumers who bet on the industry's payment security and lost. It took four months for Pamela LaMotte, 46, of Colchester, Vt., to fix the damage after two of her credit card accounts were tapped by hackers in a breach traced to a Hannaford Bros. grocery store.
It all happened at a supermarket chain that met the PCI standards. Someone installed malicious software on Hannaford's servers that snatched customer data while it was being sent to the banks for approval.
Since then, hackers plundered two companies that process payments and had PCI certification. Heartland Payment Systems lost card numbers, expiration dates and other data for potentially hundreds of millions of shoppers. RBS WorldPay Inc. got taken for more than 1 million Social Security numbers — a golden ticket to hackers that enables all kinds of fraud.
In the past, each credit card company had its own security rules, a system that was chaotic for stores. In 2006, the big card brands — Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover and JCB International — formed the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council and created uniform security rules for merchants.
Computer security experts say the PCI guidelines are superficial, including requirements that stores run antivirus software and install computer firewalls. Those steps are designed to keep hackers out and customer data in. Yet tests that simulate hacker attacks are required just once a year, and businesses can run the tests themselves.
Merchants that decide to hire an outside auditor to check for compliance with the PCI rules need not spend much. Though some firms generally charge about $60,000 and take months to complete their inspections, others are far cheaper and faster.
"PCI compliance can cost just a couple hundred bucks," said Jeremiah Grossman, founder of WhiteHat Security Inc., a Web security firm. "If that's the case, all the incentives are in the wrong direction. The merchants are inclined to go with the cheapest certification they need."
For some inspectors, the certification course takes just one weekend and ends in an open-book exam. Applicants must have five years of computer security experience, but once they are let loose, there's little oversight of their work. Larger stores take it on themselves to provide evidence to auditors that they comply with the rules, leaving the door open for mistakes or fraud.
And retailers with fewer than 6 million annual card transactions — a group comprising more than 99 percent of all retailers — do not even need auditors. They can test and evaluate themselves.
At the same time, the card companies themselves are increasingly hands-off. Two years ago, Visa scaled back its review of inspection records for the payment processors it works with. It now examines records only for payment processors with computer networks directly connected to Visa's. In the U.S., that means fewer than 100 payment processors out of the 700 that Visa works with are PCI-compliant.
Visa's head of global data security, Eduardo Perez, said the company scaled back its records review because it took too much work and because the PCI standards have improved the industry's security "considerably."
PCI's general manager, Bob Russo, said inspector certification is "rigorous." Yet he also acknowledged that inconsistent audits are a problem — and that merchants and payment processors who suffered data breaches possibly shouldn't have been PCI-certified. Those companies also might have easily fallen out of compliance after their inspection, by not installing the proper security updates, and nobody noticed.
The AP contacted eight of the biggest "acquiring banks" — the banks that retailers use as middlemen between the stores and consumers' banks. Those banks are responsible for ensuring that retailers are PCI compliant. Most didn't return calls or wouldn't comment for this story.