NYSCP County Lines, Cross Border Gangs & Cuckooing - North Yorkshire

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County Lines, Cross Border Gangs & Cuckooing

County Lines, Cross Border Gangs & Cuckooing

What’s is County Lines?

“County lines” is a violent and exploitative form of drug distribution. A common feature of county lines is the exploitation of children, young people and vulnerable adults who are instructed to deliver and/or store drugs, and associated money or weapons, to dealers or drug users, locally or in other counties.

Forms and Methods of exploitation

County lines exploitation can be perpetrated by individuals or groups of any gender or nationality and can appear unsophisticated or organised. It is typified by some form of power imbalance, which perpetrators use to force, coerce, groom and/or entice victims into county lines activity. 

They can employ several methods to do so, such as:

  • offering an exchange – carrying drugs in return for something, such as money, clothes, drugs, status, protection or perceived friendship, a sense of belonging or identity, or affection;
  • physical violence or threats of violence – used to intimidate and punish victims and their families and can involve weapons, including knives and firearms;
  • abduction or kidnapping – sometimes victims are forcibly moved and held in a location away from home;
  • emotional abuse or psychological coercive control – by manipulating, threatening, controlling or monitoring the movements of the victim;
  • sexual abuse and exploitation – this can be experienced by all genders;
  • blackmail – by forcing victims to commit a crime so they can hold it over them and threaten to report it if they do not comply;
  • the use of social media, messaging apps, gaming sites and other online platforms – including marketplace websites and smart TVs to target and communicate with victims. These modes are used by exploiters to falsely build online trusted relationships, or to post fraudulent job adverts which seem legitimate, or to cyberstalk victims in order to groom, entrap and coerce them into county lines activity;
  • debt bondage – a form of entrapment when a victim owes money to their exploiters and is made to repay their debt, either financially or through another means such as transporting drugs. The exploiter may groom the victim by initially providing money or goods which the victim will then be made to pay back. The exploiter may also deliberately manufacture a debt, for example by staging a robbery of drugs or cash in the victim’s possession in order to extort money from families or to ensure the victim will continue to perform tasks for them. The debt may also be inherited from parents and siblings; and
  • financial exploitation – financial exploitation can take many forms. In this context, we use the term to describe exploitation which takes place for the purpose of money laundering. This is when criminals target children and adults at risk and take advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate, or deceive them into facilitating the movement of illicit funds. This can include physical cash and/or payments through financial products, such as bank and cryptocurrency accounts.

Who is vulnerable to county lines exploitation?

Any child, young person or vulnerable adult could be a victim of county lines exploitation as exploiters continue to adapt who they target to avoid detection.

  • age: 15-17 year olds make up the majority of the vulnerable people involved in county lines but children of primary school age and adults are also known to be targeted (National County Lines Coordination Centre).
  • sex/gender: people of all genders can be exploited. Women and girls may be exploited to perform different roles and may experience other forms of harm alongside and so are often under-identified as victims of criminal exploitation – professionals should not make assumptions when working with a girl or young woman about the intervention required.
  • ethnicity: people from all ethnicities and nationalities are targeted and the demographics of victims of exploitation vary across England and Wales. In some areas, there is an over-representation of people from black and mixed ethnic groups, while in others, victims are mainly white.
  • location: county lines are widespread nationally, in rural and urban areas, and while they can involve the movement of drugs across county borders from one area of the UK to another, some lines supply the drugs market locally, within the same town, city or county in which they originate. County lines grooming can take place in a range of settings, including in homes, public spaces, schools and universities, prisons and youth offender institutions as well as online.

Some of the factors that may heighten a person’s vulnerability include:

  • having contact with the criminal justice system – even for minor offences that do not appear to be related to county lines;
  • having experience of neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse/exploitation or a lack of a safe/stable home environment, now or in the past (including domestic abuse, parental substance misuse or parental criminal involvement) – trauma, including adverse childhood experiences, can negatively impact on an individual’s ability to develop trusted relationships or access support services;
  • social isolation or social difficulties – the lack of a support network can mean someone is less able to get help;
  • economic vulnerability – offers of material possessions or money for victims or their family may be more readily accepted out of a feeling of necessity and lack of legitimate financial alternatives;
  • homelessness or insecure accommodation status – there is a lack of a safe environment to provide security and privacy;
  • connections with other people in gangs – some individuals are targeted through family or friends who are already involved in criminal activity themselves and sometimes a drug debt owed by them is passed on to peers or family members;
  • having a physical or learning disability, or being neurodivergent – victims may be less able to recognise they are being exploited, or less able to communicate it or access support;
  • having mental health issues – exploiters may target poor emotional wellbeing or low self-esteem;
  • having substance misuse issues – victims are sometimes given substances in lieu of payment;
  • being in or leaving care – the context behind why a person is brought into care can heighten a person’s vulnerability in itself, while those in semi- independent/independent accommodation, placed out-of-area or leaving care may have less access to support networks;
  • being excluded from mainstream education, and/or a pupil at an alternative provision such as a pupil referral unit – factors influencing a child’s exclusion may indicate they are exposed to exploitation, while being disengaged from meaningful activity and peers can evoke feelings of disenfranchisement and, for those with a reduced timetable or not attending school at all, time spent unsupervised can offer opportunities for exploitation; and
  • insecure immigration status – for example, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and refugees may have a number of vulnerability factors that can increase their exposure to exploitation, including social/cultural isolation on arrival to the country and potentially links to organised crime from their journey.

It is important to remember that risk factors such as these are never the cause of a vulnerable person’s exploitation into county lines activity; rather, they give rise to the imbalance of power which perpetrators often seek to abuse.

Moreover, there are recorded cases of exploitation of individuals with no known risk factors and who were not previously known to services (sometimes referred to as “clean skins” by exploiters), as they were deemed less likely to attract attention from authorities.

Signs to look out for

Professionals should not expect victims to report their exploitation as they may not identify or be able to express that they are being exploited. They may also be too afraid to tell professionals what is happening for fear of retaliation by their exploiter.

However, their exploitation through county lines often leaves signs. Any sudden changes in a person’s lifestyle should be discussed with them.

Some potential signs of county lines exploitation include, but are not limited to:


  • going missing from school or home, an unwillingness to explain their whereabouts and/or being found in areas they have no obvious connections with (out-of-area);
  • school exclusion(s) and/or a significant decline in school attendance, results or performance;
  • self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being, personality or behaviour;
  • anti-social behaviour or involvement in other criminality; and
  • use of drug and county lines-related slang 


  • unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, or mobile phones;
  • excessive receipt of texts/phone calls and/or having multiple sim cards or handsets – this could be a ‘burner phone’, often an older model which uses an unregistered sim card, but it may also be a smart phone which can utilise web-based apps without a phone number;
  • carrying or storing weapons;
  • misuse of substances or possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia such as discarded needles, scales, small snappy bags or cling film;
  • possession of train tickets for unusual train journeys; and
  • possession of a rucksack or a bag that they are very attached to or will not put down.


  • relationships with controlling/older individuals or groups; and
  • isolation from usual peers or social networks.


  • suspicion of physical assault/unexplained injuries – these tend to be visible but minor injuries which are issued as a threat, such as cigarette burns or small cuts, but can also be much more serious life-threatening injuries, such as stab wounds.

Signs to look out for online include:

  • spending increased or unusually excessive amounts of time online day and night;
  • building inappropriate relationships online or appearing anxious or secretive about their online activities and who they are communicating with;
  • unexpected or excessive sharing of personal information online, such as full name, address, or phone number;
  • experiencing bullying, harassment or threats online; and
  • receiving or sending money, gifts or gaming tokens/coins to someone online.

Signs of financial exploitation or a debt bondage include:

  • receiving large or unexplained sums of cash or deposits in a bank account;
  • unusual financial transactions or being made to make financial transactions they do not understand;
  • a new preoccupation with earning money;
  • asking for money or stealing money/items to pay back a debt; and
  • opening new accounts with banks or crypto exchanges

Responding to debt bondage and financial exploitation is complex. The confiscation of money or drugs from victims can unintentionally create a debt that they will be forced to pay off and supporting attempts to make payments are unlikely to result in debts being written off. It is therefore important that professionals provide support and open dialogue to discuss risks with victims, including to their families, and consider safety plans and disruption interventions to break the cycle of exploitation.

Cuckooing or Forced Home Invasion

“Cuckooing” (also known as “forced home invasion”) – a tactic used by criminals, typically drug dealers, to take over the homes of vulnerable individuals, such as care leavers or those with addiction, physical or mental health issues, and use the property as a base for criminal activity. This is a common characteristic of the county lines business model and can occur in a range of settings such as rental and private properties, student accommodation, prisons, and commercial properties.

Signs of a cuckooed property include:

  • the presence of unfamiliar individuals coming and going from the property at all hours or an increase in key fob activity;
  • an increase in foot traffic or loitering in the area around the property or takeaway deliveries at unusual hours;
  • an increase in noise and disturbance levels, including late-night parties or arguments or other signs of anti-social behaviour such as littering around the property;
  • damage to the property, such as broken windows or doors; and
  • threats or intimidation towards other residents or neighbours.

Coerced internal concealment (also known as “plugging”)

This is the practice whereby a child or vulnerable adult is controlled or coerced into concealing drugs internally as a method of transportation to avoid detection. Drugs or sim cards are usually concealed within a condom or similar packaging and inserted into a bodily orifice (rectum or vagina) using lubricant or swallowed.

A victim who has been coerced into internally concealing drugs may have suffered serious physical harm as a result of the insertion or forced removal of items and so may require immediate medical treatment. In addition, they may require ongoing support to address their emotional and psychological needs.

Signs of coerced internal concealment include:

  • refusing to consume food or drink;
  • being in possession of lubricants, condoms or similar packaging;
  • a dishevelled appearance with stained clothing; and
  • being physically unwell.

Modern slavery and human trafficking

Criminal exploitation is a form of modern slavery and as such, if you are a designated First Responder for the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), you must also refer any child you suspect of being a potential victim of modern slavery to the NRM using the online referral form. In cases involving adults you must refer them where they provide informed consent for you to do so. Where an adult does not consent, statutory First Responders still have a ‘Duty to Notify’ the Home Office that they have encountered a potential victim. In all cases, First Responders should consider whether it is appropriate to also refer the potential adult victim to local authority adult safeguarding services.

Putting the victim first

When working with an individual suspected of being exploited by county lines, their activity may appear consensual, they may not recognise that they are being exploited and the distinction between victim and perpetrator may appear unclear. This may be the case especially for those transitioning into adulthood.

However, individuals who have been groomed and exploited into criminal activity have not freely chosen to be involved, cannot consent to being exploited and so should be seen as victims first and foremost.

It is also important to recognise that they are likely to have had traumatic experiences which they may have begun to normalise. You should consider responses from a trauma- informed perspective and take an approach that puts the child, young person or vulnerable adult first, including involving them in the safeguarding process and discussing next steps with them to build their trust.

Understanding the Risks

When working with a suspected victim of county lines, have professional curiosity, keep a log of activity and save any evidence related to the exploitation, including items like train tickets and receipts from out of the area, as well as messages, images or videos online. Use reachable moments to connect with the vulnerable person and actively seek inputs from different professional perspectives to build a picture of the whole story.

Partnerships and multi-agency working

Effective collaboration and information sharing between agencies is essential to protecting victims and disrupting offenders. It is therefore important to provide as much information as possible as part of the safeguarding referral process. This will allow any assessment to consider all the available evidence to address harm.

If you are aware that a potential victim may have come from / travelled to another area as part of their involvement in county lines, you should include this information to enable liaison between safeguarding agencies in the different areas. However, remember that this cross-county travel is not necessary – where you have concerns about criminal exploitation for the supply of drugs locally, victims will need safeguarding in the same way. Likewise, the absence of a phone line for supply of the drugs should not prevent you from making a safeguarding referral as county lines activity can be conducted online.

Useful Resources

  • https://youtu.be/DdYq2dhQ3qc National County Lines Coordination Centre – a 10 minute video created in partnership with Sketchups, discussing the county lines methodology and how this is impacting children, young people and vulnerable adults, partners, law enforcement and society.
  • The Children’s Society, #LookCLoser exploitation awareness campaign – funded by the Home Office and run in partnership with the National County Lines Coordination Centre and British Transport Police, which asks everyone to play a role in spotting the signs of county lines and other forms of child exploitation and taking action to ensure these children get help.
  • The Children’s Society, Child Exploitation Appropriate Language Guide – guidance to professionals on the appropriate use of language when discussing children and their experience of exploitation in a range of contexts.
  • Ivison Trust, County lines slang – some words/terms that are commonly used when describing county lines activity.
  • Centre of Expertise on Child Sexual Abuse, Communicating with Children Guide – a guide for those working with children who have or may have been sexually abused.
  • Home Office, Child exploitation disruption toolkit – disruption tactics for those working to safeguard children and young people under the age of 18 from sexual and criminal exploitation.

Support for Victims

Professionals can refer victims and families to the following Home Office-funded specialist support services:

  • Missing People’s SafeCall – a confidential and anonymous helpline and support service for young people and family members in England and Wales that are affected by county lines and criminal exploitation. The service also provides confidential support and advice for professionals in relation to their work with an exploited young person or family. Call or text 116000 for free, 9am to 11pm, 7 days a week.
  • Barnardo’s Independent Child Trafficking Guardianship Service in 17 sites in England and Wales, providing an independent source of advice and advocacy for children who have been trafficked and somebody who can speak up on their behalf. ICTGs are provided in addition to the statutory support provided by local authorities to all children in their area.

Other organisations that offer further information, advice or direct support in some areas of the county include (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • St Giles Trust
  • The Children’s Society
  • Ivison Trust
  • Railway Children

Who should I contact if I have a safeguarding concern?

If you believe that a child, young person or adult is at immediate risk of harm you should call the Police on 999.

If you suspect someone is dealing in drugs or if suspect a premises in your area is being used for Cuckooing, contact the Police on 101.  Alternatively they can contact Crime Stoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

Crimestoppers (to report a crime anonymously)– call 0800 555 111 or use the online form. The Fearless service for under 18s can also be accessed using this online form.

Members of the public should contact the Customer Service Centre/Emergency Duty Team on 0300 131 2 131 or for adults, raise a safeguarding concern via the online screening tool available from the North Yorkshire Council Website.

Professionals wishing to raise a safeguarding concern should use the:

Universal Referral Form (children and young people)

Make a referral (adults)

Make a Referral via the Adult Social Care Website

Page reviewed: July 2024


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