By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California lawmakers on Tuesday took a major step toward outlawing the use of so-called "ransomware" to hijack computers for money, passing a bill through its first committee with the support of law enforcement.
The legislation, which would call for hackers using ransomware to be prosecuted under a statute similar to extortion but geared specifically to cyber crime, easily cleared the state senate's public safety committee.
Senate Bill 1137 moves next to that body's appropriations committee. It must be approved by both houses of the California legislature and be signed by Governor Jerry Brown to become law.
A spokesman for the measure's author, state Senator Bob Hertzberg, said the measure, which was co-sponsored by the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office, had been met with little opposition so far.
"We don't anticipate any problems with the bill, it seems to be getting very strong support," said Andrew LaMar, communications director for Hertzberg, a Democrat.
Authorities say ransomware attacks, in which hackers use malicious software to lock up data in computers and leave messages demanding payment have surged this year.
More than $209 million in ransomware payments were made in the United States alone during the first three months of 2016, according to FBI statistics cited by Hertzberg's office.
In March, Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital in Los Angeles paid a ransom of $17,000 to regain access to its systems.
Los Angeles prosecutors, in a letter to the state senate's public safety committee, said that the bill was needed because current extortion laws are not well tailored toward prosecuting ransomware attacks.
While such attacks have been around longer than a decade, security experts say they have become far more threatening and prevalent in recent years because of state-of-the-art encryption, modules that infect backup systems, and the ability to infect large numbers of computers over a single network.
Run-of-the-mill ransomware attacks typically seek 1 bitcoin, now worth about $420, which is about the same as the hourly rate that some security consultants charge to respond to such incidents, according to security firms who investigate ransomware cases.
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb,; additional reporting Jim Finkle in Boston; edting by Andrew Hay)