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Cutting the Head off the Snake: Disrupting County Lines


Crest Advisory and Forensic Analytics collaborated on a new research project about the role played by technology in the criminal exploitation of children involved in ‘county lines’ drug gangs.

The project traced the development of smartphones and digital devices and show how organised crime groups and criminal gangs made use of new forms of personal communications to adapt their business models and respond to police tactics. 


County lines gangs emerged when drug-dealers in urban areas expanded their businesses to capture demand in suburban and rural parts of the country. Dealers groomed and manipulated children into selling drugs - many of them vulnerable children. The ‘county lines’ refer to mobile phone lines used to order drugs and control the young people involved.


Debate about the growth of county lines gangs typically centres on the social factors that have made children vulnerable to exploitation, such as poverty, exclusion from school, familial abuse and neglect. The role played by technology, however, has been overlooked. As a result, agencies responsible for spotting, preventing and disrupting child criminal exploitation have been unclear about how to respond to online harms and threats.


We hope this work pinpoints shortcomings and gaps in the way law enforcement and safeguarding authorities deal with the problem. We sought to identify opportunities for adopting new tactics to counter those used by county lines gangs as they change the way they operate.

What did we look at? 

The project was completed in three key phases.

Phase 1: Explored the evolution of the ‘traditional model’ of county lines through the lens of technological innovation, examining the links between changing patterns of exploitation and advances in digital communications.

Phase 2: Identified new and emerging trends in the use of telecommunications and social media by county lines drug gangs.

Phase 3: Findings from the research are included in a final report. There are be recommendations for central government departments and law enforcement agencies.

Project publications

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