What is criminal exploitation?

Criminal exploitation happens when someone makes or convinces you to commit crime for their benefit, making you feel trapped.  Anyone can be a victim of criminal exploitation, whatever your background, circumstances or age.  Very often, if something doesn't feel right, it isn't.  There's more information on this page about what it might look and feel like.  There's also links you can click through to for more information on what to do if you think this is happening to you or a friend; your child or relative; or to someone you are supporting. 

Organised crime groups and gangs use promises, threats and intimidation to persuade or force people to commit crime. Very often, it will look like they are helping you, but they are trying to gain your trust and create a false friendship so that they can make you feel like you owe them something.  This can make you feel trapped into doing things that you do not want to do.

You may feel 'Trapped' if someone:

  • Expects you to work for free in return for food or a place to stay
  • Share drugs or alcohol with you in return for using your house to hold or sell drugs. 
  • Threaten to stop being friends if you don’t perform criminal ‘dares’
  • Threaten to hurt your family or friends if you do not do what they want
  • Use their age/status/power over you to make you steal cars 
  • Give you gifts or money in return for you transporting drugs or money across the country alone. 
  • Asks you to pay off money you owe them by selling drugs from a drug den in an area you do not know. 
  • Threatens and intimidates you and takes over your house to commit crimes
  • Promises to 'look after you' or 'protect you', if you hold a weapon for them and tell nobody. 

This isn’t a complete list, but if any of the scenarios sound familiar then you may have been criminally exploited, even if the person who did it was a friend or someone you look up to. Criminal exploitation is illegal and 'not okay'.

What is County Lines?

County Lines’ is a form of criminal exploitation used by gangs and criminal networks to deal drugs across the country. 

Gangs use dedicated mobile phone lines, sometimes called 'shot lines', to contact customers,

Gangs manipulate vulnerable young people, and adults to move or sell drugs on their behalf, often by grooming or threatening them. 

They also take over people's houses, using them to store drugs and weapons, to cut and package drugs, and to sell drugs from which is often referred to as 'cuckooing'.

Two teenagers on an urban street

Parents, Guardians and Families

Worried about your child? 

Child criminal exploitation can be hard to detect. The criminals that commit this type of crime use are experts in manipulation. Young people may not be aware, or feel like they they are being exploited. 

If something is out of the ordinary for your child and you are worried about changing or unusual behaviour you can speak to someone to get advice. Young people will respond to exploitation differently and some may not show any ‘obvious’ signs of exploitation. Trust your intuition as a parent or carer, and if something appears out of the ordinary or wrong then speak to a professional.

Criminal exploitation can happen in many ways: within friendship groups, online, with people they believe they look up to and respect, or by strangers through someone they know. It can happen to anyone.

Below are some possible indicators of criminal exploitation. If your child does not show any of the below indicators, but you are still worried, then speak to a professional. All children respond in their own way to criminal exploitation:

  • Changes in usual behaviour
  • Not coming home when they say they will, or going missing
  • Evidence or suspicion that they are travelling a lot, particular using trains, coaches or other forms of transport to travel long distances
  • Low self-esteem/self-worth
  • Changes in appearance
  • Reluctant to talk about what they are doing and becoming secretive
  • Struggling to engage in school
  • Mental health difficulties such as low mood, seeming anxious
  • Self-harm
  • Overly protective of their phone and social media content
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Sudden changes/fear of people/friends
  • Unexplained gifts or money
  • Use of language that is not usual for them
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Detailed knowledge about drugs and/or criminal activities
  • Knowledge of areas which they do not have any links to. 


If you work with or care for young people or vulnerable adults, you can download our Trapped resources.  If you are working with a young person who may be showing behaviour which you are struggling to manage, try to think about what could be going on to cause this, rather than looking at the behaviour in isolation.  Make sure you can recognise the warning signs and know who to speak to in your own organisation to discuss or report your concerns.

Everyone else

Look around

Criminal exploitation is illegal.

When someone is persuaded, coerced or forced into criminal activity in exchange for gifts, money, drugs, alcohol, reward, or status, they are being exploited.

Abusers manipulate their victims into taking part in criminal activity in different ways – grooming their victims with attention or gifts, or by using coercive, controlling behaviour, and sometimes force. The exploitation process can be incredibly subtle. Many young people who are being exploited care about the person exploiting them and do not realise they are victims. They may also be threatened with violence to themselves or their family. Adults can also feel this way, or feel they have no choice but to commit criminal acts.

As you travel around Greater Manchester, look around you. If you are worried that someone is being criminally exploited, ask them if they are ok (if it is safe to do so), or report your worries to a professional such as the British Transport Police, a teacher, a police officer, a conductor etc or call 101, or 999 in an emergency. You can also report your concerns to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

Look out for interactions and situations which do not feel, or seem right to you. Our ‘gut’ feeling is usually a good way of us knowing something is not OK. If you see someone being forceful or threatening to a young person, seek help from a professional or intervene if it is safe to do so. Be curious to what is happening around you. Asking someone if they are OK can be the first step in helping them to seek help.

Keep your ears and eyes open. Is there a young person travelling during the day, when they should be in school? Are they on their own, or with a group of older people?

If you work or travel through a place where lots of children meet up is there any evidence of young people being offered drugs or alcohol? Is anyone being singled out and being ‘dared’ or made to do things they do not look comfortable with, this could be by their peers? Have you overheard young people talking about travelling long distance on their own, going ‘country’, or talking about ‘trap houses’? Is there anyone actively approaching young people in a way which does not feel right?

  • If you see a young person who is not in school during regular school hours, ask them if they are ok.
  • If you see someone collecting a young person in a taxi or car during school and it does not feel right, try to take down the registration number and report it.
  • If you see a young person, or young people, frequently entering houses on your street that you know they don’t live at, report it. 

Further information and resources

Useful links and resources

The Children’s Society provide useful information and resources if you are a parent or guardian and you have concerns about a young person. A lot of this talks about criminal exploitation through County Lines and that might not be the exact experience of your child. However, the resources and information. The Children’s Society provide cover all forms of criminal exploitation.  

NSPCC provides information and resources regarding criminal exploitation and gangs, as well as sexual exploitation and grooming. They also have a helpline where you can get advice.

The Modern Slavery Helpline offers advice to concerned members of the public, parents, family members and professionals around modern slavery and trafficking. If a young person you know is being moved around the country, they may be a victim of trafficking. 

Barnardo's offer services to support and safeguard children and young people across the UK.  Their website gives more information on what services they provide in your area.

Crossing the Line is one of a series of single voice plays researched with young people in Rochdale commissioned by M6 Theatre Company and produced in collaboration with Breaking Barriers.  Full resources can be downloaded from the website.

Trapped Campaign 

Trapped is Greater Manchester's campaign to raise awareness of criminal exploitation and what you can do if you think you or someone you know is being exploited.

Programme Challenger uses the Trapped campaign to raise awareness of criminal exploitation and to work with communities to ensure they feel confident about identifying and reporting their concerns. Key to this is working with schools, youth centres, housing providers and other local services to raise awareness with potential victims, to enable them to identify when someone is trying to exploit them and provide them with safe places to report their concerns.

In Greater Manchester we recognise that criminal exploitation does not only happen in County Lines and drug dealing, but can include other forms of criminal activity such as shoplifting, arson, violent offences, storing firearms and holding money. Criminal exploitation is not always about moving people around the country. It can be happening in your street.

Two videos have been produced under the Trapped campaign: 'County Lines' and 'The Present', highlighting what criminal exploitation can look like.  They're only about ten minutes long, and might help you to recognise exploitation happening to you or someone you know.

Trapped - County Lines video

Trapped - The Present video

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