What is criminal exploitation and county lines?

Children and young people are targeted by gangs and organised crime groups and are exploited to move and sell drugs across the country. This is commonly known as ‘county lines’. Gangs will often groom children and use threats, violence and force to control young people. Young people may be forced to travel hundreds of miles and be away from home or care for long periods of time. We want to help you recognise the warning signs of criminal exploitation and how we can help if you are worried about your child.

About criminal exploitation and county lines

Criminal Exploitation: Being forced, threatened and/or blackmailed into criminal activity for someone else. This could include drug dealing, carrying weapons, stealing or using a person’s bank account to transfer money gained from drug dealing.

County Lines: A specific form of criminal exploitation set up by gangs and organised crime groups to transport and sell drugs from one area to another. This could be over short distances in your own neighbourhood or hundreds of miles across the country.

Gangs will use a number of ways to build a relationship with a child and to build trust between them. This is called ‘grooming’. Things can turn dangerous very quickly, when they start demanding the young person does things for them, like sell drugs, to work off a ‘debt’. This is often coupled with threats, intimidation and violence to force the young person into doing what they want.

The signs

  • A noticeable and often sudden change in personality, behaviour and moods such as becoming hostile, aggressive, secretive, unsettled, anxious, scared, depressed or controlling;
  • Disengaging from education, family and/ or their normal social life;
  • Periods of going missing – this could be for short periods or for days, weeks or months at a time;
  • Unexplained new items – sometimes called ‘gifts’. This could include new expensive trainers, mobile phones, jewellery or clothes;
  • An increase in using their mobile phone with lots of messages and calls coming through as well as multiple phones;
  • Their attendance, behaviour or performance at school declining;
  • Spending time with a new group of older friends, or people you are never allowed to meet;
  • Returning home with rucksacks, boxes or packages that you don’t recognise;
  • Unexplained injuries including bruises, burns or cuts;
  • Unexplained sums of money;
  • Coming to the attention of the police.

This is not an exhaustive list, but these are some of the most important indicators to show that something might not be right for your child. You may also have a ‘gut feeling’ that something isn’t right. It’s important not to ignore this, and to speak to someone about your concerns.

Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them.  Children and young people who are groomed can be sexually abused, exploited or trafficked.

Anyone can be a groomer, no matter their age, gender or race. Grooming can take place over a short or long period of time – from weeks to years. Groomers may also build a relationship with the young person’s family or friends to make them appear trustworthy or authoritative. Grooming may be a phased, gradual process used by perpetrators to sexually exploit young person either online or offline.

Contact may be direct or through a young person’s school mates, friends, siblings or neighbours. Many young people disclose that the initial contact was made by someone they regarded as an equal.

Examples of points of contact include:

  • Home
  • Online (including game chatrooms, social media, and video sites)
  • Take away
  • Shops
  • School/PR
  • Friend’s house
  • Park
  • Youth club
  • Bus and train stations
  • Befriending

The risks

The risks associated with exploitation can include physical and emotional harm, violence, sexual abuse and exposure to situations that can leave children and young people extremely traumatized. Gangs might also threaten to hurt the young person’s family or to tell their family about some of the ‘favours’ they’ve already done for the gang. This is to increase the fear the young person feels.

Gangs will often convince children that they are in debt to them through a practice known as ‘debt bondage’.

This could be:

  • When a child will be set up and robbed of drugs by a member of their own gang and left believing they are in debt.
  • When a child is told that they owe the gang for all of the ‘gifts’ they have been given, like new mobiles, jewellery or trainers.

The child will often feel that they have no choice but to continue working for the gang for free until this ‘debt’ is paid off. In reality, the young person is unlikely to ever ‘pay off’ this ‘debt’ as gangs will usually keep adding to the amount to keep the young person trapped.

How to get help

If you’re worried that your child may be being exploited by gangs, Is This OK can help you.

We can offer confidential support to your child. Our online chat service is free and confidential offering a safe space for your child to get help and advice from a trained professional.

Useful links


NWG Network

Stop The Traffik