County Lines

County lines are a network between an urban centre and county location where drugs are sold often over a mobile phone. Children and vulnerable people are used to transport drugs, cash or even weapons. It can involve intimidation, blackmail and serious violence.

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

Sometimes gangs form a secure base in the home of a vulnerable person, forcing assistance 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 violence. Young people can have drugs or money stolen and become indebted, needing to continue to supply 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.

Definition of county lines

County lines is a term used to describe gangs and organised criminal networks involved in exporting illegal drugs into one or more importing areas within the UK, using dedicated mobile phone lines or other form of “deal line”. They are likely to exploit children and vulnerable adults to move and store the drugs and money and they will often use coercion, intimidation, violence (including sexual violence) and weapons.

HM Government, 2018

Quotation marks

Child criminal exploitation

This is another term used to describe exploitation where children are involved.  The government define child criminal exploitation as:

Child Criminal Exploitation is 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.

Extent of county lines

A threat update issued by the National Crime Agency in November 2018 suggests:

  • this affects the majority of areas with almost 90% of police forces reporting evidence of county lines activity.
  • two thirds of all the police forces reporting county lines activity report the associated exploitation of children.

The Children’s Society estimate that in London alone there are around 4,000 teenagers being exploited through county lines, with children involved being as young as 12.  The Children’s Commissioner reports that across the UK the true number could be as high as 50,000 children and young people with more than 1,000 county lines in operation nationally.

In an answer to a parliamentary committee about county lines, the Children’s Commissioner stated:

Any of us would be shocked by the viciousness and tenacity of that business model, which is based on extreme violence. Young people who live in areas where it happens sometimes say, “I’ve got no choice. Joining isn’t a lifestyle choice to me – I can’t see any other way. I don’t have the protection of a family. I don’t have the kind of consistency at home that gives me the safety net and the resilience to be able to fight this.” They want to belong. They want to be protected. Someone from St Giles said the other day, “Kids pick up knives like you might pick up car keys before you leave the house.” It is on that level of normality.


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 persons house (for example through exploiting mental or physical health issues or through promising free drugs).  The takeover can be to such an extent that the person is either kicked out of their own home or can only access specific parts of their home.

Vulnerable groups


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 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.

Potential signs


As with other forms of exploitation and abuse, there 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 and may often be found out of the home area – may often go missing without explanation.
  • suddenly have significant amounts of money, new phones, new clothing which is out of character.
  • be carrying a number of mobile phones, receive constant calls / text messages.
  • be linked to groups of young people / young adults who are older or controlling.
  • have unexplained injuries or starting 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. increasing stressed / anxious / angry).
  • have unexplained bus or train tickets.
  • be using unusual terms (see below).
  • not want to go to specific areas without explanation.
  • have keys / hotel cards for unknown places.

Phrases used


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

  • Going country – this is a term that young people often use to describe county lines.
  • Trapping – the act of selling drugs or moving drugs from one town to another.
  • Trap house – the base from where drugs are sold.  This is usually a place that has been set up through cuckooing (see above).
  • Trap line / deal line – the mobile phone that is linked to the act of selling or running drugs.
  • Drug debt – this often refers to money that the person owes to the gang for drugs that they have used themselves.  This can be a way for the gangs to control the individual, with the debt being kept at a certain level so that the individual can never realistically pay it off.


  • Criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults: county lines

    Guidance for frontline professionals on dealing with county lines, part of the government’s approach to ending gang violence and exploitation.

  • Recognising & acting on signs of ‘county lines’ child exploitation: A case study

    W, a young person, committed a homicide shortly after being discharged from community mental health services. Prior to this, W had no history of seriously violent or criminal behaviour. He had been assessed repeatedly as presenting a low risk of offending. He had no clear mental health diagnosis. W was given a significant prison sentence. Unknown to the services working with W over the four years beforehand, as a child, he had been subject to criminal exploitation by a drug gang.  This report looks at the how county lines set the context for W’s homicide.

  • County lines – protecting vulnerable people from exploitation: posters

    Promotional posters to support the government’s work to deal with county lines – this is where urban drug dealers expand their activity into small town markets.

  • County Lines Educational Resource

    This is an educational resource for professionals working with young people throughout the UK. It provides exercises on a range of crime types that professionals can use to challenge young people’s perceptions, stimulate debate and encourage good citizenship.  Fearless (the brand behind this resource) is the Crimestoppers brand for young people. It’s the main way that  young people will be introduced to the valuable service that Crimestoppers provides.

  • Criminal Exploitation: Stages of Recruitment

    Two page document produced by the Children’s Society breaking down recruitment into Criminal Exploitation into four stages and providing information about what young people may experience at each stage of recruitment – can also be used when considering cases of exploitation.

  • National Crime Agency Resources

    Summary of County Lines and relevant reports provided by the National Crime Agency.

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