The year 2011 will be remembered as the year hacktivists out-stole cybercriminals to take the top data breach award, according to a report by Verizon.

More than 100 million of the 174 million stolen records Verizon tracked in 2011 were stolen by hacktivist groups, according to the authors of Verizon’s 2012 Data Breach Investigations Report.

Hacktivists have drastically changed their methods and goals since groups like milwOrm and G-Force Pakistan first emerged on the scene in the late ’90s to deface websites and conduct DDoS attacks for political motivation. Last year, activists moved beyond simple website defacements into large-scale data theft operations that netted e-mail spools and intellectual property from firms like HB Gary and Stratfor, who were targeted in high-profile, embarrassing breaches for touting anti-WikiLeaks and pro-government stances and services.

The disparity in numbers between hacktivists and criminal groups may lie in the kinds of organizations each group has targeted. Hacktivist groups focused on large, high-profile entities that had lots of data, whereas criminal groups have changed their focus in the last two years from large companies to smaller businesses that are less well-defended.

More than 112,000 payment cards were compromised from 163 franchise locations, and at least 800 other retail computer systems in various hotels, movie theaters, medical facilities, cafes and pizzerias were also compromised by the same group, resulting in more than $20 million in losses.

Now in its eighth year, Verizon has added new partners to its annual data breach report. In addition to data taken from forensic investigations conducted by Verizon’s RISK Team, the United States Secret Service and the Dutch National High Tech Crime Unit — the latter two being partners who also contributed to last year’s report — the report this year encompasses data taken from cases investigated by the Australian Federal Police, Irish Reporting and Information Security Service, and the Police Central e-Crime Unit of the London Metropolitan Police.

The report combines data from 855 incidents that involved more than 174 million compromised records, an explosion of data loss compared to last year’s 4 million records stolen. The increase is due largely to the massive breaches perpetrated by activists.

Verizon noticed a difference between how large and small organizations are breached. Smaller organizations tend to be breached through active hacking, involving vulnerabilities in websites and other systems and brute force attacks. Larger companies are more often breached through social engineering and phishing attacks — sending e-mail to employees to trick them into clicking on malicious attachments and links so that the intruders can install malware that steals employee credentials. Verizon surmises that this is because larger organizations tend to have better perimeter protections, forcing intruders to use human vulnerabilities to breach these networks instead