County lines is the name given to drug dealing where organised criminal groups (OCGs) use phone lines to move and supply drugs, usually from cities into smaller towns and rural areas.
They exploit vulnerable people, including children and those with mental health or addiction issues, by recruiting them to distribute the drugs, often referred to as ‘drug running’.
Signs to look out for
There are several signs to look out for that may indicate someone is involved in county lines:
- repeatedly going missing from school or home and being found in other areas
- having money, new clothes or electronic devices and they can't explain how they paid for them
- getting high numbers of texts or phone calls, being secretive about who they're speaking to
- decline in school or work performance
- significant changes in emotional or physical well-being
Ways OCGs use social media
- advertising drugs by sharing photos, videos
- statuses showing money, new drugs or when the dealer is open for business
- dealers sharing ‘stories’ to followers, using social platforms to expand their network with ‘suggested’ friends
- using hashtags linked to drugs
- using emojis as code for drug, violence and sexual activities, eg the snowflake emoji (for buying cocaine), 8-ball emoji (for buying an eighth of a gram) or the rocket emoji (for purity of drugs)
OCGs often use high levels of violence and intimidation to protect the ‘county line’ and control them. One of these forms of control exploits vulnerable people by using their home as a base for dealing drugs, a process known as cuckooing. Dealers often convince the vulnerable person to let their home be used for drug dealing by giving them free drugs or offering to pay for food or utilities.
Often OCGs target people who are lonely, isolated, or have addiction issues. It's common for OCGs to use a property for a short amount of time, moving address frequently to reduce the chance of being caught.
There are several signs to look out for that may indicate someone is a victim of cuckooing:
- frequent visitors at unsociable hours
- changes in your neighbour’s daily routine
- unusual smells coming from a property
- suspicious or unfamiliar vehicles outside an address
If you’re concerned about drug-related crime in your area or think someone may be a victim of drug exploitation, please call us on 101.
Silent 999 calls
If you're in danger but you can't talk on the phone, you should still call 999, then follow these instructions depending on whether you're calling from a mobile or a landline.
No personal details are taken, information cannot be traced or recorded and you will not go to court or have to speak to police when contacting Crimestoppers.
Further information and support
- The National Crime Agency County Lines website explains more about county lines and indicators of exploitation in your area.
- Safe 4 Me has details about support services nationally for young people impacted by Child Criminal and Sexual Exploitation. They also have lots of information regarding specific forms of exploitation, understanding trauma, rights and the law and much more.
- The Safeguarding Network have helpful tips for understanding indicators of exploitation and what may make a young person more vulnerable to being exploited.
- The NSPCC Net-Aware website offers guidance on understanding specific apps and platforms that young people may be using.