The term ‘county lines’ is used to describe a violent and exploitative form of drug distribution whereby gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK use dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”.

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. This can include both home and international university students.

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, including (but limited to) the use of coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons:

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;

"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 could also happen in student accommodation;

Coerced internal concealment (also known as “plugging”) – the practice whereby a child or vulnerable adult is controlled or coerced into concealing drugs internally as a method of transportation to avoid detection;
 • 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;
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.

Criminal exploitation of children, young people and vulnerable adults for the supply of drugs, and transportation of the associated money and weapons, has a devastating impact on victims, families and local communities.

How to report

If you or anyone you know has become a victim of county lines exploitation, support is available. You can report this directly to the police by calling 999 in an emergency, or 101 for non-emergency enquiries.

You can also contact Crimestoppers – call 0800 555 111 or use the online form. The Fearless service for under 18s can also be accessed using this online form.


Catch 22 - County Lines Support and Rescue – a specialist support and rescue service in London, West Midlands, Merseyside and Greater Manchester for young people up to the age of 25 and their families who are criminally exploited through county lines.

SafeCall - Missing People – 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 – runs the specialist Interim Guidance for Independent Child Trafficking Guardians (ICTGS) 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.

If you are unsure of whether you or someone you know has become a victim of county lines exploitation, you can contact the Report + Support Team by completing a Speak to an Advisor form.

There are two ways you can tell us what happened