a person in a hoodie with a mobile phone looking at a laptop

Running out of credit: Mobile phone tech and the birth of county lines

Crest Advisory has published the first long read of our joint research project on county lines, ‘Running out of credit: Mobile phone tech and the birth of county lines’.

The article explores how important mobile phone use has been to the rise of county lines. Crest has interviewed police officers, tech experts and young people with lived experience to understand the impact.

The mass market availability of mobile phones has not only transformed the way we communicate with each other, it has allowed criminal gangs to extend their operations across county lines.

Integral to their operations has been the “burner” phone, which allows those running drug gangs to direct their dealers and communicate with users. However, the line between smartphones and burner phones is becoming blurred: tech such as end-to-end encrypted messaging on social media apps is available on cheaper devices.

One significant technological advancement is the use of social media to groom young people for roles within the drug supply chain. The interviewees described how accounts on social media apps like Snapchat and Instagram glamorise a lifestyle funded by drug dealing. Once young people have engaged with social media accounts offering opportunities to make money through county lines, a conversation is moved into an end-to-end encrypted messaging environment.

In order to tackle county lines, law enforcement agencies have increased their digital forensic capabilities. However, our research found that there is still a “technological knowledge gap” in forces. For example, one blind spot is around exploitation on gaming platforms.

As technology changes, it is clear that county line operators will use any available tool to minimise their personal risks. This means they will conduct more of their business remotely. The days of gangs grooming children by driving onto their estate or to school gates is now giving way to a virtual model which is invisible to the wider public.

Law enforcement agencies must therefore prepare for a step-change in the use of technology by criminal gangs. Crest Advisory’s research collaboration with Forensic Analytics, ‘Cutting the Head off the Snake’, explores the role of technology in the criminal exploitation of children in ‘county lines’ by gangs.

You can download a PDF of the full article HERE.