PRIVATE HIRE and taxi drivers are getting tips on how to spot children being exploited as drug mule couriers.
A Home Office campaign is highlighting the warning signs of youngsters being taken advantage of by criminal networks using the narcotic distribution model called “county lines”.
This involves urban gangs in cities using children to branch out into new markets in county or coastal towns to sell heroin and crack cocaine.
The campaign posters have been designed to flag up possible warning signs for cabbies, bus and coach workers and advise drivers to keep an eye out for young children, who may be alone in a shopping centre or high street, travelling during school hours, late at night or early in the morning.
The poster warns: “They (the children) might seem unfamiliar with the local area or not have a local accent. Some may be with older individuals who are purchasing tickets for them or giving them money for tickets. They might also be receiving excessive texts or phone calls.
“Are they deliberately avoiding authority figures such as police officers or security guards?”
The poster adds: “If you see something that doesn’t feel quiet right or looks suspicious, concerning a child or young person, you should report it to Crimestoppers on 0800 555111.”
The Home Office campaign comes after a number of government reports highlighted how city gangs prey on teenagers and vulnerable adults to spread their lucrative drug-dealing operations into rural areas.
Experts say the tactics can yield up to £5,000 a day in revenue through the selling of drugs.
Analysis by the National Crime Agency (NCA) found there was a “conservative estimate” of around 720 country lines across England and Wales.
The NCA report, published in November 2017 said: “County lines groups tend to use younger members to identify and target other children, either through personal or social media links.
“The majority of children recruited by ‘county lines’ networks are aged between 15 and 17 years old and male. Anecdotal evidence suggest that children are often used for supply and to run drugs/money between the urban hub and a rural market place.
“This is because they are less likely to be known to the police and more likely to receive lenient sentences if caught.”
A Home Office spokesman said the ‘county lines’ campaign was part of a Serious Violence Strategy, which will:
Establish a new balance between prevention and rigorous law enforcement activity. It will stress the importance of early intervention to tackle the root causes of serious violence and provide young people with the skills and resilience to lead productive lives free from violence.