County Lines and Criminal Exploitation

County Lines is where illegal drugs are transported from one area to another, often across police and local authority boundaries (although not exclusively), usually by children or vulnerable people who are coerced into it by gangs.

The ‘County Line’ is the mobile phone line used to take the orders of drugs. Importing areas (areas where the drugs are taken to) are reporting increased levels of violence and weapons related crimes as a result of this trend.

Children as young as 12 years old have been exploited into carrying drugs for gangs. This can involve children being trafficked away from their home area, staying in accommodation and selling and manufacturing drugs.

The Meaning Of the word Cuckooing

Criminal gangs are targeting the homes of vulnerable people to be used for drug dealing – a process known as “cuckooing” (after the bird that invades other bird’s nests) and victims are often left with little choice but to cooperate. Dealers often approach the vulnerable person offering free drugs to use their home for dealing or in some instances after providing ‘free’ drugs, will then force the person to deal for them in order to ‘re-pay’ their drug debts. These criminals are selective about who they target, a lot of the time victims are lonely, isolated, frequently drug users themselves and are already known to the police. “Cuckooing” means the criminals can operate from a property rather than the street, which is out of sight from the police making it an attractive option. They can then use the premises to deal drugs from, which is difficult for the police to monitor and they often will only stay for a short period of time. What to do if you suspect a property is being ‘cuckooed’?  Call Police on 101 or 999 in an emergency to report drug-related information.

How do you know if County Lines drug dealing is happening in your area?

An increase in visitors and cars to a house or flat New faces appearing at the house or flat New and regularly changing residents (e.g different accents compared to local accent) Change in resident's mood and/or demeanour (e.g. secretive/ withdrawn/ aggressive/ emotional) Substance misuse and/or drug paraphernalia Changes in the way young people you might know dress Unexplained, sometimes unaffordable new things (e.g clothes, jewellery, cars etc) Residents or young people you know going missing, maybe for long periods of time Young people seen in different cars/taxis driven by unknown adults Young people seeming unfamiliar with your community or where they are Truancy, exclusion, disengagement from school An increase in anti-social behaviour in the community Unexplained injuries

Exploitation of young and vulnerable people

A common feature in county lines drug supply is the exploitation of young and vulnerable people. The dealers will frequently target children and adults - often with mental health or addiction problems - to act as drug runners or move cash so they can stay under the radar of law enforcement.In some cases the dealers will take over a local property, normally belonging to a vulnerable person, and use it to operate their criminal activity from. This is known as cuckooing.People exploited in this way will quite often be exposed to physical, mental and sexual abuse, and in some instances will be trafficked to areas a long way from home as part of the network's drug dealing business. As we have seen in child sexual exploitation, children often don't see themselves as victims or realise they have been groomed to get involved in criminality. So it's important that we all play our part to understand county lines and speak out if we have concerns. 

  • The easiest way to deal with grooming is to stop it before it starts! Once you're in a groom cycle, it can be hard to break out. This is because a grooming cycle is very complexed and it will often leave you feeling guilty for wanting to leave. the emotional manipulation that is used by a groomer, will often make you want to stay even when offered a way out. The complexity of the relationship may be linked into many different aspects of the life of an individual. Some victims of abuse believe that they are to blame for the break up of the relationship. The following signs may indicate that a child is being exploited by a county lines gang:

  • There are a number of signs which may help reveal whether a child is being exploited by County Lines drugs gangs. It is up to the public and organisations to identify these signs and help protect children at risk. Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol Children involved with County Lines drugs gangs could be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

  • Children travelling alone frequently, either at night or during school hours, is one sign to look out for. Children that are being exploited may appear lost or unfamiliar with their surroundings.

  • Spending more or less time online or on their devices. Being upset, withdrawn, or distressed.

  • There is nothing wrong with wanting nice things or being able to support your family more, but it can come at a cost.

  • Personal information is crucial to a groomer. They use this to build up a picture of your life. Information about you or your family can be used to manipulate you in the future. 

  • Never accept gifts or other material things from someone that you are not sure about. This is a common way for a groomer to position you for a later debt or demand. Gifts are great, but ask yourself why you deserve one!

  • Be cautious of people that want to become friends with you.

Responding to concerns about county lines exploitation

If you’re worried that a child or young person might be or is at risk of being exploited by a county lines gang, you must share your concerns.


If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you’re worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing

If you require advice or general information please get in touch

Youth Unity work in strict confidence to offer impartial advice and signpost 

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