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“County Lines” activity is when organised gangs from major cities use coercion, intimidation and violence to force vulnerable people to get involved in the illegal drug trade in smaller towns and rural areas.

Relying on a dedicated mobile phone line, known as a deal line, they use “runners” to distribute drugs and transport cash across a particular region.

It’s a destructive and distressing crime, causing untold damage to those involved and their communities.

In a bid to tackle exploitation and gang violence, including activities around County Lines, the Home Office has produced government guidance for frontline staff working with vulnerable people, which can be accessed here: Criminal Exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: County Lines guidance.


Drug dealers and gangs from large cities across Britain. Using others to transport drugs and money allows them to remain behind the scenes and out of sight of the law. Through force, enticement and threats of or actual violence, they prey on vulnerable people.

These gang members are often involved in a range of criminal activity, from money laundering and violence to grooming and sexual exploitation, modern slavery and human trafficking.


The runners are vulnerable children, young people or adults, male or female, who are targeted and groomed by the gangs.

Child Criminal Exploitation is particularly prevalent in this crime and those as young as 12 have been involved, although most tend to be around the age of 15 to 16.

They may already have been neglected or abused, suffer from social, economic or health issues, or have issues around mental health or substance misuse. They may already have connections with gang members. Those in care or with a lack of stability in their home environment are also vulnerable.

The victims might be of any nationality or ethnic background, although gangs sometimes prefer to work with white British children, as the perception is that they are less likely to be stopped by the police.


There is usually a power imbalance of some kind between the perpetrators and those they exploit. The relationship may appear consensual on the surface, but is based on exploitation or coercion.

As well as situations where adults prey on vulnerable children, issues such as cognitive ability, status and physical strength can come into play. Those exploited might also be given or promised rewards, whether money or items they want, or protection, status or apparent friendship/affection. They may alternatively or additionally act under threat of harm to themselves or their family.


This is where a gang takes over an area and/or someone’s home to set up a base. These are usually vulnerable people, such class A drug users, alcoholics, sex workers, those with health issues, single mothers, older people or people living in poverty. The person may remain in their home or be forced out.


The National Crime Agency, the police, government agencies and voluntary and community groups are all involved in tackling the issue of County Lines.

Professionals who operate in a range of organisations, from health and education to law enforcement, should be aware of the government guidance and find ways of working together.

They should also look for signs of individual’s becoming involved in County Lines, from injuries, self-harm or behavioural changes, to unexplained phones, cash or belongings, to absenting themselves from home, school or work, or having relationships with people who are older and/or controlling.

Local safeguarding guidance is available to provide a framework for those working with vulnerable people who may be involved with County Lines exploitation. Information should be shared with the relevant authorities, such as the police and the victim’s local public or children’s protection officer.

Information is also available from organisations such as the NSPCC, The Children’s Society and Childline; Mind (for mental health issues) and Crimestoppers (including their youth programme Fearless).

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