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By 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.

Read More: MedStar Hospitals Recovering After 'Ransomware' Hack

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.

Read More: Disruptive 'Ransomware' Hackers Have a Savvy Business Plan

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.