Criminal exploitation also known as 'county lines' is becoming an increasing problem in the UK. Gangs and organised crime networks are grooming and exploiting vulnerable children, including fostered children, to sell drugs on their behalf. Find out more about it here.

What is county lines?

County lines is a term used when drug gangs and organised crime networks from big cities expand their operations to smaller towns, exploiting children to sell and transport the drugs on their behalf. Often these children are made to travel across counties, and they use dedicated mobile phone ‘lines’ to supply drugs.


Gangs recruit and use children and young people usually between the ages of 14-17 to move drugs and money for them, however children as young as eight have been involved. Anecdotal evidence suggests children are often targeted because they are less likely to be known to police and more likely to receive lenient sentences if caught. These young people are exploited and forced to carry drugs between urban locations, usually on trains or coaches after which they are forced to sell drugs to local users. County lines groups tend to use younger members to identify and target other children, either through personal or social media links. 

Targeting care experienced children

Children are often targeted who are seen as vulnerable in some way – such as having poor mental health, having experienced chaotic or traumatic lives, being homeless or being drug users. Looked after children can be more vulnerable to being targeted according to the National Crime Agency’s 2018 publication explaining that it is likely that children displaying such vulnerabilities are attracted by the sense of belonging, inclusion and structure offered by participation in an offending group. 

Intimidation and manipulation

Gangs use violence and weapons to threaten individuals during recruitment, and also violently assault those “working” for them if they find their drugs or money to be missing. Gang leaders have been found to use other gang members to mug the new recruits and take the money or drugs they were carrying ensuring the young people are then “in debt” to the gang for “losing” these items.  These drug debts then coerce young people into further county lines activities. Groups will sometimes threaten family members of new recruits, using violence and intimidation to ensure engagement and cooperation with the network. 

Children are heavily manipulated and often don’t see themselves as victims or realise that they have been groomed to get involved in criminal activity. Therefore it is vitally important to be vigilant and able to spot the signs and seek support if you feel someone in your household may be involved.

Spotting the signs

Read some of the signs of exploitation to watch out for in the children you care for below:

  • Are they frequently going missing from school or home?
  • Are they travelling alone to places far away from home?
  • Do they suddenly have lots of money/new clothes/new mobile phones?
  • Are they receiving a lot more calls or texts than usual?
  • Are they carrying or selling drugs?
  • Are they carrying weapons or know people that have access to weapons?
  • Are they in a relationship with or spending time with someone/people that are older and controlling?
  • Do they have unexplained injuries?
  • Do they seem very reserved or like they have something to hide?
  • Do they seem scared?
  • Are they self-harming?

A few things to look out for in properties in your neighbourhood:

  • An increase in people coming and going
  • An increase in cars or bikes outside
  • Litter outside
  • Signs of drug use
  • You haven’t seen the person who lives there recently or when you have, they have been anxious or distracted.


Criminals are rarely open about their practices so it’s useful to understand some of the common terms used to describe criminal behaviours.

Clean skin – someone unknown to the Police or social services

Cuckooing – the practice of take over the home of a vulnerable person through violence and intimidation, making it a base for selling or manufacturing drugs (known as a trap house).

“Going country” – the most popular term to describe county lines activity. It can also mean the act of travelling to another city/town to deliver drugs or money.

Trapping – the act of selling drugs. Trapping can refer to the act of moving drugs from one town to another or the act of selling drugs in a location.

​Trap house – a building used as a base from where drugs are sold (or sometimes manufactured). These houses are usually occupied by adult drug users but sometimes young people are also forced to stay there.

Trap line or deal line – a mobile phone specifically for the purpose of running and selling of drugs.

Take action

As well as being vigilant, looking for signs of county lines activity and understanding criminal terminolgy, it is also vital to communicate with the children and young people in your household and be open-minded and non-judgmental in these interactions.

If you are concerned that someone in your household is involved in county lines, do seek support; notify your social worker and the child’s social worker.

The organisation Fearless offers information and advice about crime and criminality and provides an anonymous platform through which to give information about crime. The National Crime Agency also provides further information and support for what to do if you have concerns.