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Just about every month this year, criminal groups have attacked small and mid-sized local governments - just about every month - holding their computer systems hostage and demanding ransom payments again and again. The Justice Department says the hackers are becoming more sophisticated, so the time to prepare is now.
Here's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Brian Benczkowski runs the criminal division at the Justice Department. He's watched the rise in so-called ransomware cases with concern.
BRIAN BENCZKOWSKI: They are becoming smarter and more sophisticated in how they're targeting their victims. And municipalities need to harden themselves as targets, and they need to do so quickly.
JOHNSON: The cyber firm Recorded Future has tallied 176 ransomware attacks on state and local governments this year. California, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Maryland have all fallen victim, sometimes disrupting police and public health operations.
Benczkowski says many of those places share common traits. For one thing, they're big enough to be able to afford to pay ransoms, but they haven't poured enough money into building a safety net.
BENCZKOWSKI: The message I would send to those kinds of municipalities - sort of 50,000 people to 250,000 people - is invest in the basic cybersecurity protections for your systems.
JOHNSON: He says those places need to back up their data and keep paper records offline, things they can do in the event that they do get attacked.
BENCZKOWSKI: Come to law enforcement early in the process when you learn that you have been a target or if, you know, heaven forbid, you become a victim so that we can help you get better prepared and help you solve the problem.
JOHNSON: The FBI discourages local governments from paying ransoms. The bureau says that only promotes more criminal activity, and it doesn't necessarily mean those places will get their data back. The FBI says most of these ransomware attacks can be prevented.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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