County lines activities are managed by drug gangs using transport and supply lines controlled by mobile phones (‘deal lines’).
County lines usually involves the trafficking and sale of Class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine
Drug gangs set up bases in new locations to produce and sell illegal drugs – this often happens through taking over the homes of vulnerable adults in a process known as ‘cuckooing’. These places are sometimes known as ‘trap houses’ or ‘safe houses’
Who is affected?
- drug gangs exploit children and vulnerable adults by forcing them to take part in county lines activities
- drug gangs groom people through giving them ‘free’ drugs and money – this creates a ‘drug debt’ that can only be paid back by taking part in county lines
- promises of money, power and status and threats of violence and intimidation are also used for grooming and coercion
- people forced to take part in county lines activity are exposed to intimidation, violence and abuse and can experience high levels of trauma. Addiction to drugs used in county lines activities is also a risk. Impacts can be long term and affect physical and mental health, and increase vulnerability to involvement in crime.
How are people exploited?
- becoming a ‘runner’ – people forced to move drugs and money to maintain the supply of drugs to market locations, sometimes involving travelling long distances on public transport or in private vehicles. This is a form of Human Trafficking where the person is forced to travel against their will.
- runners are often given mobile phones so they can be contacted by the person controlling a particular county line – this allows them to receive instructions about when and where to transport drugs and gives the gang more control over them
- being ‘cuckooed’ – where the property of a vulnerable adult is taken over by a drug gang. The person being cuckooed may be threatened with violence and may have drug debts to the gang
- people may be on the edges of county lines activity for some time before becoming actively involved.
Spotting some of the signs- not exhaustive;
Appearance and behaviour
- becoming more secretive, aggressive or violent
- meeting with unfamiliar people
- persistently going missing – someone may go missing from their home or local area when they are trafficking drugs along ‘deal lines’
- leaving home without explanation or staying out unusually late
- loss of interest in school, college or work and decline in performance
- significant changes in emotional wellbeing
- suspicion of physical assault or unexplained injuries – including ‘DIY injuries’, (knife and puncture wounds) which are signs of punishment for drug-related debts
- using language relating to drug dealing, violence or gangs
- carrying a weapon.
- associating with a gang
- becoming isolated from peers and social networks
- having a friendship or relationship with someone who appears older or controlling
- sudden changes in lifestyle
- using drugs, especially if their drug use has increased
- unexplained acquisition of money, drugs or mobile phones.
- being found in possession of large quantities of drugs
- being taken to different houses and locations by unknown people
- receiving an excessive amount of texts or phone calls
- using more than one phone, especially if both are used to communicate with different people – for example, if one phone is used exclusively to communicate with specific people or a specific group.
Signs that someone’s property is being cuckooed
- suspicious items in the property, such as weighing scales, multiple phones, sim cards or drug paraphernalia
- unexplained presence of cash, clothes and other items of value
- doors and windows which have been blocked off
- presence of unknown people in the property, who may act as friends of the inhabitant – their accents may indicate that they are not local and may have travelled to traffick drugs
- more people than normal entering the property, or people arriving and leaving at unusual times
- cars arriving at the property for short periods of time
- concerns that the inhabitant of the property has not been seen for a while – they may feel too afraid to leave the house or may have been prevented from doing so by the drug gang.
Information, resources and support
Victim Support is an independent charity in England and Wales that provides specialist practical and emotional support to victims and witnesses of crime.
#LookCloser is a partnership campaign between The Children’s Society, the National County Lines Co-ordination Centre and the British Transport Police, encouraging everyone to learn the signs of child exploitation and how to report it if worried, including here on our anonymous online form. The campaign also seeks to highlight that child exploitation can happen anywhere, and any young person can be a victim. Find out more at the campaign webpage.