A sports clothing retailer is suing Visa to recover a $13M fine for a potential data breach.

The suit takes on the payment card industry’s powerful money-making system of punishing merchants and their banks for breaches, even without evidence that card data was stolen. It accuses Visa of levying legally unenforceable penalties that masquerade as fines and unsupported damages and also accuses Visa of breaching its own contracts with the banks, failing to follow its own rules and procedures for levying penalties and engaging in unfair business practices under California law, where Visa is based.

PCI is designed to push nearly all risks and costs onto merchants and their banks through a series of contracts. The PCI Security Standards Council has stated that no PCI compliant organization has ever been breached. This is a clear fallacy – merchants pass their assessments, they get breached, and then PCI retroactively revokes their certifications. Fines are then levied against the acquiring bank and passed on to the merchant.

When a breach occurs, the card companies collect their fines from the third-party banks that process the card transactions, instead of the merchants, who have more incentive to fight the fines. Third-party banks then simply collect the money from the customer’s account or sue them for uncollected balances, using the indemnification clauses in their contracts to justify it. The card companies collect their fines with no hassle and merchants, in the meantime, are left fighting to dispute the fines and get their money back from the card companies.

In this case, the retailer (Genesco) is suing Visa for violating their own policies, especially since there was no evidence that card numbers were exfiltrated or used for fraud.

Watch this one closely. If it succeeds there will likely be a flood of similar cases. This case doesn’t seem to attack the root of the PCI system itself (the contract system), but I could see that easily getting wrapped into either this case or a future one if Genesco is successful.

Seriously – I don’t think all of PCI is bad, but the PCI SSC claims that no compliant organization has been breached is a load of (my favorite word beginning with ‘s’). That position and their policies on fines convinces me PCI is a scam. Especially since they even try to intimidate PCI assessors who speak negatively about PCI in public (yes, direct warnings to shut up or else, I have been told).

The card companies, especially Visa (who pulls most of the strings), have a chance to change course and clean up the issues that undermine a program that could be very beneficial. But PCI is currently losing what little legitimacy it has.