County Lines

Safeguarding Network

February 2024 - 6 minute read

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County lines are illegal drug dealing networks between large urban centres, small towns and rural locations. Children and young people are coerced, using intimidation, blackmail and violence, to transport and sell drugs, cash and weapons across the country via dedicated mobile phone lines which may be referred to as “deal lines”.

Children and young people are at risk if they become caught in county lines networks. To reduce the risk to themselves, the dealers use people they think others will not suspect. Any child or young person on the periphery of drug use, taking drugs, or otherwise coming into contact with drugs, is vulnerable.

Sometimes gangs establish a secure base in the home of a vulnerable person, forcing their cooperation through violence or exploiting a drug dependency. Leaders or dealers can enter into relationships with vulnerable young females, which can also lead to sexual exploitation or domestic abuse. Young people can have drugs or money stolen and become indebted, forcing them to continue to cooperate to pay the money back.

If you have any suspicions regarding drug taking or the potential for county lines you should contact the police on 101 (or 999 if you feel someone is in imminent danger) and follow your safeguarding children procedures.

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Definition of county lines

“County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. This activity can happen locally as well as across the UK – no specified distance of travel is required. Children and vulnerable adults are exploited to move, store and sell drugs and money. Offenders will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons to ensure compliance of victims.”

Keeping Children Safe in Education

Child criminal exploitation

This is another term used to describe exploitation where children are involved. The Home Office defines child criminal exploitation as:

"common in county lines and occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child criminal exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology."

Whilst child criminal exploitation is wider than county lines (for example including child sexual exploitation, modern slavery and trafficking), the common theme is the imbalance of power.

The extent of county lines

In its 2021 overview of the County Lines Programme (launched in 2019), The Home Office says the police have:

  • closed more than 1,500 lines;
  • made over 7,400 arrests;
  • seized £4.3 million in cash and significant quantities of drugs;
  • safeguarded more than 4,000 vulnerable people;
  • engaged more than 4,000 individuals through safeguarding interventions.

The Children’s Society estimates that, in London alone, there are around 4,000 teenagers being exploited through county lines, with children involved being as young as 6.

Criminal gangs seek out vulnerable children and young people to exploit, manipulating them into thinking the gang can meet their needs. Children and young people have often said they joined gangs for the sense of belonging and protection that they could not find elsewhere.


This is a term that is often used in connection with county lines. When a gang moves into an area, they need somewhere to base themselves. They will often take over a vulnerable person’s house (for example by exploiting mental or physical health issues or by promising free drugs). The takeover can be to such an extent that the person is either kicked out of their home or can only access specific parts of their home.

Additional vulnerabilities

Whilst everyone is vulnerable to being exploited by gangs and groups, there are specific groups of children and young people with increased vulnerability to this type of exploitation.

Children and young people with increased vulnerability include those:

  • who have previous experience of being abused;
  • who have lived, or are currently living, in unstable home environments (e.g., where there is domestic abuse, parental substance misuse, parental mental ill-health or criminal activity);
  • who are socially isolated;
  • in families where there are significant money issues, homelessness or where the family are frequently having to change accommodation;
  • already involved in, or on the edge of, gangs – this may be through direct involvement or the involvement of brothers and sisters;
  • who are looked after (particularly those who are in residential care settings and those already placed outside of their home area);
  • excluded from mainstream education and attending alternative provisions such as pupil referral units.

The Children’s Commissioner also warned that the number of children exploited by county lines networks would increase in the aftermath of the covid pandemic because the crisis escalated the many risk factors in child vulnerability.

Spot the signs

As with other forms of exploitation and abuse, there are things that we can look out for which might indicate that someone is involved in county lines.

Children and young people may:

  • be frequently missing from home, placement or school, often be found out of the home area and often go missing without explanation;
  • suddenly have significant amounts of money, new phones or new clothing which is out of character;
  • be carrying several mobile phones and receive constant calls/text messages;
  • be linked to groups of young people/young adults who are older or controlling;
  • have unexplained injuries or start to self-harm;
  • have poor attendance/achievement at school or show an unexpected decline in their academic work;
  • be isolated from their normal peer group/become secretive about their actions;
  • become withdrawn or alternatively have unexplained outbursts which are out of character (e.g., increasingly stressed/anxious/angry);
  • possess unexplained bus or train tickets;
  • be using unusual terms (see below);
  • not want to go to specific areas without explanation;
  • possess keys/hotel cards for unknown places.

Phrases used

There are some specific terms that you may hear in relation to county lines.

  • Going Country/OT/Going Cunch – This is the most popular term that describes county lines activity. It can also mean the act of travelling to another city/town to deliver drugs or money.
  • Trapping – The act of selling drugs. Trapping can refer to the act of moving drugs from one town to another or the act of selling drugs in one.
  • Trap House or Bando – A building used as a base from where drugs are sold (or sometimes manufactured). These houses are occupied by someone (usually adult drug users but sometimes young people are forced to stay in trap houses).
  • Trap Line/Deal Line – This refers to when someone owns a mobile phone specifically for the purpose of running and selling drugs.
  • OBS/OPPO – This refers to opposition, as in a rival neighbourhood gang.
  • Plugging – This is where things have been concealed for transporting, usually inserted into the rectum or vagina.
  • Shotter – A drug dealer.
  • “G” – A gram of illegal drugs.
  • “Q” – A quarter of an ounce of drugs.

DSL Training Materials

  • Presentation

  • Presenter Notes

  • Handout for staff

  • County Lines – Quiz

  • County Lines – Quiz (Answer Sheet)

  • County Lines scenario – Primary Schools

  • County Lines Scenario (Primary) – DSL Information Sheet

  • County Lines scenario – Secondary Schools

  • County Lines Scenario (Secondary) – DSL Information Sheet

  • County Lines Scenario – 16+ / FE settings

  • County Lines Scenario – 16+ / FE settings – DSL Information Sheet


  • Criminal Exploitation of Children and Vulnerable Adults – County Lines

  • County lines – Protecting Vulnerable People from Exploitation – Posters

  • County Lines Educational Resource

  • County Lines Exploitation - Applying All Our Health

  • CREST Report - County Lines: Breaking the Cycle and Case Studies

  • National Crime Agency Resources

  • No More Knives or County Lines

  • SAVE ME film and facilitator handbook

  • I’m Being Exploited

  • Fearless Resources

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