Signs of criminal exploitation

Here are some signs to look out for that can suggest that someone you know might be involved in county lines activity.

Signs of involvement in county lines

  • Frequent missing episodes and being found in a different area to where you live
  • Found with large quantities of drugs or weapons
  • Found with drugs inside rectum or vagina
  • Unexplained amounts of money, mobile phones, credit, clothing, jewellery, new haircuts or other items and gifts
  • Being arrested in a different area to where you live – especially for drug related offences
  • Multiple referrals for incidents in the same location
  • Returned from missing episodes with injuries, or dishevelled appearance
  • Change in behaviour, ie more secretive, withdrawn, or isolated from peers, or not mixing with usual friends
  • Unexplained absences from, or not engaged in school, college, training, or work
  • Increasingly disruptive, hostile or physically aggressive at home or school, including the use of sexualised language and language in relation to drug dealing and/or violence
  • Expressions around invincibility or not caring about what happens to them
  • Increased interest in making money
  • Reports of being taken to parties, people’s houses, unknown areas, hotels, nightclubs, takeaways or out of area by unknown adults
  • Increasing use of drugs or alcohol
  • Fear of reprisal from gang members or violence from young people or adults
  • Having multiple mobile phones, sim cards or use of a phone that causes concern eg multiple callers or more texts/pings than usual
  • Possession of hotel keys/cards, or keys to unknown premises
  • Disclosure of a sexual or physical assault, followed by withdrawal of the allegation
  • Abduction or forced imprisonment
  • Entering or leaving vehicles/cars with unknown adults
  • Receiving rewards of money or goods for introducing peers
  • Self harm or significant changes in emotional well-being
  • Agencies unable to engage with the child or young person
  • New peer groups and/or relationships
  • Relationships with controlling or older individuals or groups


The risk to a child or young person, and their family and friends, as a result of experiencing criminal exploitation can include, but is not limited to:

  • Physical injuries, including risk of serious violence and death
  • Emotional and psychological trauma
  • Sexual violence, including sexual assault, rape, internally inserting drugs, indecent images being taken and shared as part of initiation, revenge, or punishment
  • Debt bondage, where a child or young person and their families are ‘in debt’ to the exploiters, which is then used to control the young person
  • Neglect, and the child or young person’s basic needs not being met
  • Living in unclean, dangerous and/or unhygienic environments
  • Tiredness and sleep deprivation, where the child or young person is expected to carry out criminal activities over long periods and through the night
  • Poor attendance and/or attainment at school/college/university