Headline: Iowa Caucus Polling System Threatened By Hackers - Republican Party officials in Iowa are taking new steps to secure their vote counting systems after an anonymous threat suggested computer hackers could attempt to disrupt next month's presidential nominating caucuses.

Headline: Chinese Computer Hackers Hit U.S. Chamber of Commerce - A group of hackers in China breached the computer defenses of America's top business-lobbying group and gained access to everything stored on its systems, including information about its three million members, according to several people familiar with the matter.

Headline: Hackers Target U.S. Security Think Tank - The loose-knit hacking movement "Anonymous" claimed Sunday to have stolen thousands of credit card numbers and other personal information belonging to clients of security think tank Stratfor. One hacker said the goal was to pilfer funds from individuals' accounts to give away as Christmas donations, and some victims confirmed unauthorized transactions linked to their credit cards.

These three stories which ran in just the last week show just how vulnerable we are to the cyber thieves lurking out there, seeking to steal everything from government secrets to personal credit cards.

The latest breach was reported last weekend by Stratfor, the Texas-based firm that provides political, economic and military analysis to help clients reduce risk. The company charges subscribers for its reports and analysis, delivered through the web, emails and videos.

The culprits stole a confidential client list containing more than 4,000 credit card numbers, passwords and home addresses. Stratfor clients range from Apple to the U.S. Air Force to the Miami Police Department.

The Anonymous thieves previously claimed responsibility for attacks on companies such as Visa, MasterCard and PayPal, as well as others in the music industry and the Church of Scientology.

What's unique about this latest theft is that the Anonymous culprits see themselves as some sort of cyber Robin Hood. One member of the hacking group claimed that more than 90,000 credit cards from law enforcement, the intelligence community and journalists had been hacked and used to "steal a million dollars" and make donations to charities such as the Red Cross, CARE and Save the Children.

Anonymous has also warned that there are "enough targets lined up to extend the fun through the entire next week."

Unfortunately, there appear to be more cyber criminals out there than there are good guys trying to police them. Just like the job market, there are many cyber criminals ready to step in to fill someone's shoes. One analyst I recently heard said that for every bad guy who's finally caught and prosecuted for hacking, there are a couple hundred of capable cyber thieves eager to step in and handle the job.

Leading into the new year, many of us are still caught up in the post-Christmas shopping rush in which items are being exchanged and personal information given out. This includes your credit cards that are being scanned in stores or typed in online.

The first rule in dealing with online companies is to make sure they are properly verified and reputable. Remember that any personal information you choose to give out marks your very identity – something cyber crooks are always eager to get their hands on.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com