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Rental homes and drugs gangs – could your buy-to-let be at risk?

Sally Walmsley
Written by Sally Walmsley

Urban drug dealers are moving to rural areas to establish a new drugs market – with the Home Office warning landlords to be on their guard.

A new National Crime Agency (NCA’s) report has found many urban gangs rent properties in rural and market towns – even in affluent areas – which they then use as a base for criminal activity.

These gangs use a drug dealing model known as ‘County lines’.

What is County lines?

The term ‘County lines’ is used by police to refer to drug networks (both gangs and organised crime groups) which use children, young people and vulnerable adults to carry out illegal activity on their behalf.

The name refers to the use of a single telephone number (or ‘line’) for ordering drugs, which is operated from outside the area and becomes the group’s brand.

Unlike other criminal activities where telephone numbers are changed on a regular basis, these telephone numbers are maintained and protected.

The operation sees gangs from London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and other large cities sending dealers to sell in less populated areas.

Whilst this isn’t a new phenomenon, over the last few years the number of city drugs gangs expanding their operations to more rural and suburban areas has significantly increased.

The exploitation of young and vulnerable persons is a common feature of County lines gangs, who use high levels of violence and intimidation to establish and maintain markets.

Victims are exposed to varying levels of exploitation including physical, mental and sexual harm, with some over protracted periods.

Some vulnerable individuals are trafficked into remote markets to work whilst others are falsely imprisoned in their own homes, which have been taken over (cuckooed) using force or coercion.

Levels of violence vary considerably but it often includes the use of knives, corrosives, firearms and other weapons. It may also include sexual violence and sexual exploitation.

How does the operation work?

Traditionally the gangs begin by finding a property in the rural or suburban town.

These gangs frequently take over a property in the new town in a process called ‘cuckooing’.

They will befriend a vulnerable person, such as a drug addict, an elderly person, those with mental or physical health impairments, female sex workers, or single mothers, and establish a relationship with the vulnerable person to gain access to their home.

Once in place, the gang establishes their base in the rural town.

The latest National Crime Agency report found that county lines gangs are increasingly moving away from ‘cuckooing’, and are using other accommodation types, including renting houses or flats, for their bases.  

To help private landlords avoid letting their properties to these criminal gangs, the Home Office and CrimeStoppers are working together to increase awareness among private landlords of the signs to spot criminal tenants.

Professionals working in the housing sector – including landlords and letting agents – are now being encouraged to spot signs of County lines activity to avoid letting their properties to these criminal gangs – and to flag up suspicions to CrimeStoppers.

Warning signs to look out for:
  • The prospective tenant offers to pay rent for a long period (e.g. six months) upfront in cash.
  • The prospective tenant is smartly dressed and appears affluent, but wants to rent an inexpensive property.
  • The prospective tenant is unable to provide landlord or employment references.
  • The tenant prefers to pay rent in cash, and is unable to provide a good justification.
  • The tenant does not want to be disturbed, and tries to prevent you from inspecting your property when given reasonable notice.

County lines gangs often use other people to rent accommodation, as a means of distancing themselves from the criminality, so a landlord may not have the contract with the actual criminal.

To minimise the risk of your property being used by a criminal gang:
  • Ask the prospective tenant appropriate questions about their reason for moving, try to judge if they seem genuine.
  • Visit your property within a few weeks of the start of the tenancy to confirm you have rented it to the tenants you think you have – but always remember you must observe your tenants’ right to ‘quiet enjoyment’.
  • Once the tenant is in situ, arrange regular (quarterly or six monthly) inspections to ensure the property is being used according to the agreement and to check on the property’s condition. If the tenant seems overly reluctant to allow you to visit, be wary. If you have doubts it can be helpful to ask for feedback from legitimate contractors, for instance those carrying out gas and electricity safety inspections, as a way to assess what’s going on.
How widespread is the problem?

The National Crime Agency estimates there are at least 720 county lines across England and Wales, with the majority of these lines involving the exploitation of many young or vulnerable people.

The NCA’s 2017 report, County Lines Violence, Exploitation & Drug Supplybrings together data on county lines activity from all UK polices forces. The key findings are:

  • There was evidence of County lines activity in 88% of force returns (38 forces)’ However, the NCA believes County Lines to be present in some form in all England and Wales force areas
  • 74% of forces (32) noted exploitation of vulnerable people:-
    • 37% of forces (16) reported exploitation of persons with mental health issues
    • 12% of forces (five) reported exploitation of persons with physical health issues
    • 65% of forces (28) reported that County Lines activity was linked to exploitation of children
  • Virtually all forces that reported County lines activity also said the individuals responsible were involved with carrying weapons. Knives were mentioned by 85% of forces (35) and firearms were mentioned by 74% of forces (32).
  • Based on the data provided, the NCA estimates that there are at least 720 County lines across England and Wales, although the actual figure may well be higher. Based on the data provided by forces, at least 283 of those lines will originate in London, although other urban hubs continue to emerge
  • The NCA estimates that the majority of those 720 plus lines will involve the exploitation of multiple young or otherwise vulnerable people.
The Home Office County Lines campaign

This Home Office awareness-raising campaign is one part of a wider range of work to tackle County lines, which is set out in the Home Office’s Serious Violence Strategy which was launched in April this year.

A spokesperson said: “County lines gang activity and the associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation has a devastating impact on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities. Gangs exploit young people and vulnerable adults through deception, intimidation, violence and grooming, using them to transport drugs, money and carry out drug deals.

“This Government is taking strong action to tackle county lines as we set out in the Serious Violence Strategy. We have passed legislation to allow police to shut down phone lines used to market drugs, and published guidance for frontline professionals on how to identify potential victims.

“We are continuously improving our operational response to safeguard the vulnerable and targeting those responsible for this despicable crime.”

The Home Office has produced a poster for landlords and agents outlining the key signs to look out for. The poster can be downloaded here.

CrimeStoppers can be contacted on 0800 555 111

More information:

Rental homes can often be attractive to criminals – so it pays to be on your guard.

Criminals can often use rental properties to set up cannabis factories. To read more on how to protect your home click here.

Buy-to-let properties can also be used as a base for human traffickers. To read more about the issue and the signs to spot click here.

About the author

Sally Walmsley

Sally Walmsley

Sally Walmsley is the Communications Manager for the RLA and Editor of RPI magazine. With 16 years’ experience writing for regional and national newspapers and magazines she is responsible for producing articles for our Campaigns and News Centre, the weekly E-News newsletter and editorial content for our media partners.

She issues press releases promoting the work of the RLA and its policies and campaigns to the regional and national media and works alongside the marketing team on the association’s social media channels to build support for the RLA and its work.

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