County lines is the name given to drug dealing where organised criminal groups (OCGs) use phone lines to move and supply drugs, usually from cities into smaller towns and rural areas.
They exploit vulnerable people, including children and those with mental health or addiction issues, by recruiting them to distribute the drugs, often referred to as ‘drug running’.
Signs to look out for
There are several signs to look out for that may indicate someone is involved in county lines:
repeatedly going missing from school or home and being found in other areas
having money, new clothes or electronic devices and they can't explain how they paid for them
getting high numbers of texts or phone calls, being secretive about who they're speaking to
decline in school or work performance
significant changes in emotional or physical well-being
Ways OCGs use social media
advertising drugs by sharing photos, videos
statuses showing money, new drugs or when the dealer is open for business
dealers sharing ‘stories’ to followers, using social platforms to expand their network with ‘suggested’ friends
using hashtags linked to drugs
using emojis as code for drug, violence and sexual activities, eg the snowflake emoji (for buying cocaine), 8-ball emoji (for buying an eighth of an ounce) or the rocket emoji (for purity of drugs)
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.
OCGs often use high levels of violence and intimidation to protect the ‘county line’ and control them. One of these forms of control exploits vulnerable people by using their home as a base for dealing drugs, a process known as cuckooing. Dealers often convince the vulnerable person to let their home be used for drug dealing by giving them free drugs or offering to pay for food or utilities.
Often OCGs target people who are lonely, isolated, or have addiction issues. It's common for OCGs to use a property for a short amount of time, moving address frequently to reduce the chance of being caught.
There are several signs to look out for that may indicate someone is a victim of cuckooing:
frequent visitors at unsociable hours
changes in your neighbour’s daily routine
unusual smells coming from a property
suspicious or unfamiliar vehicles outside an address
How do you know if County Lines drug dealing is happening in your area?
Some signs to look out for include:
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
What to do if you have concerns
The best advice is to trust your instincts. Even if someone isn't involved in county lines drug dealing, they may be being exploited in some other way, so it's always worth speaking out.
You can speak to your local police by dialling 101, or in an emergency 999.
If you would rather remain anonymous, you can contact the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
If you notice something linked to the railways, you can report concerns to the British Transport Police by texting 61016 from your mobile. In an emergency dial 999.
If you are a young person who is worried about your involvement, or a friend's involvement in county lines
A good option is to speak to an adult you trust and talk to them about your concerns.
You can also call Childline on 0800 1111. Childline is private and confidential service where you can talk to specially trained counsellors about anything that is worrying you.
Alternatively, speak to a children and young people's service like Catch 22. They work with children and young people of any age to help get them out of situations they're worried about, and have helped lots of children and young people involved in County Lines.
Working in partnership with other agencies, St Giles offers specialist services to help young people make a safe and sustained exit from county line involvement. Caseworkers offer both practical and emotional support to the young person and their family to help address any issue which might be driving county line involvement.
Law enforcement response
Tackling county lines, and the supply gangs responsible for high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse of vulnerable adults and children, is a priority for UK law enforcement.
Law enforcement collectively has been stepping up its response, working to identify and take effective action in areas of the country with the most significant problems.
To enhance the law enforcement response still further, a multi-agency county lines coordination centre has been established, bringing together officers from the NCA, police and regional organised crime units to develop the national intelligence picture, prioritise action against the most serious offenders, and engage with partners across government, including in the health, welfare and education spheres, to tackle the wider issues.
In addition to helping the NCA and policing partners to work together more effectively and deliver a more comprehensive response to the county lines threat, the centre will assist the development of a whole-system, multi-agency approach which is vital to ensuring that vulnerable people are identified and safeguarded, understanding factors behind demand for drugs, and recovering proceeds of crime.
If you’re concerned about drug-related crime in your area or think someone may be a victim of drug exploitation, please call us on 101.
No personal details are taken, information cannot be traced or recorded and you will not go to court or have to speak to police when contacting Crimestoppers.
Further information and support
The National Crime Agency County Lines website explains more about county lines and indicators of exploitation in your area.
Safe 4 Me has details about support services nationally for young people impacted by Child Criminal and Sexual Exploitation. They also have lots of information regarding specific forms of exploitation, understanding trauma, rights and the law and much more.
The Safeguarding Network have helpful tips for understanding indicators of exploitation and what may make a young person more vulnerable to being exploited.
The NSPCC Net-Aware website offers guidance on understanding specific apps and platforms that young people may be using.