Criminal exploitation

County lines is the police term for urban gangs supplying drugs to suburban areas and market and coastal towns using dedicated mobile phone lines or “deal lines”. It involves child criminal exploitation (CCE) as gangs use children and vulnerable people to move drugs and money. Gangs establish a base in the market location, typically by taking over the homes of local vulnerable adults by force or coercion in a practice referred to as ‘cuckooing’.

Child Criminal Exploitation

A young person’s involvement in county lines activity often leaves signs. A young person might exhibit some of these signs, either as a member or as an associate of a gang dealing drugs. Any sudden changes in a young person’s lifestyle should be discussed with them. Some indicators of county lines involvement and exploitation are listed below, with those at the top of particular concern:

  • Persistently going missing from school or home and / or being found out-of-area;
  • Unexplained acquisition of money, clothes, or mobile phones
  • Excessive receipt of texts / phone calls
  • Relationships with controlling / older individuals or groups
  • Leaving home / care without explanation
  • Suspicion of physical assault / unexplained injuries
  • Parental concerns
  • Carrying weapons
  • Significant decline in school results / performance
  • Gang association or isolation from peers or social networks
  • Self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being


Cuckooing is a tactic typically used by drug gangs seeking to expand their operations beyond the reaches of their home turf. It involves taking over the homes of vulnerable people, such as drug users, people with mental health issues or drink problems and sex workers – forcing them to let someone live with them and effectively taking over their home to use as a base of operations for drug dealing and other crimes.

Reporting Criminal Exploitation

If you believe a person is at immediate risk of harm, you should contact the police.

Anyone that suspects another professional or adult of abuse or neglect has a duty to refer it to the relevant employer or safeguarding agency to be investigated.

If you need to raise a Safeguarding Adults concern, please call 01472 256 256. This number is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Related documents

County Lines poster (PDF, 658KB)

CCE Guidance

Exploitation Process flowchart (PDF, 171KB) 

Exploitation Risk Assessment Tool (Word, 280KB) 

Related websites

GOV.UK – Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults

YJLC guide to modern slavery and county lines

Springer Link – Human Trafficking

Missing People