Vulnerable people in Essex are being targeted by County Lines drug gangs who take over their homes and use them as bases for drug dealing.
The tactic, known as cuckooing, sees the gang manipulate people to gain access to their properties; often specifically targeting those with drug and alcohol addictions, financial problems and learning difficulties.
The groups have also been known to target vulnerable individuals such as the elderly and young mothers, often befriending their victims by offering free gifts, protection or drugs. However, these gifts and friendship comes at a price as gang members will then move into the victim’s home and use it to facilitate crime and exploitation, including storing, converting or dealing drugs.
Victims find themselves trapped, threatened by the gang, and unable to see a way out. In some cases, they have abandoned their homes entirely and ended up living on the streets.
The Essex Violence and Vulnerability Unit wants to raise awareness of cuckooing amongst the public and front-line workers and in the past year has provided training to more than 450 police and partner agency employees to recognise the signs of cuckooing.
This month, the Essex VVU is launching Operation Trespass. This will see 50,000 leaflets and posters go out to community partners, police stations and to victims of cuckooing and their neighbours. The material will describe the signs of cuckooing and tell people who to go to for help.
Detective Chief Inspector Jim White is part of the VVU and is keen that people understand more about this form of crime: “Cuckooing is part of the drug dealers’ business model, and it’s more prevalent now because of COVID-19,” said DCI White.
“The gangs would previously use Airbnb, guest houses or hotels to set up but now they’ve been forced to use individuals’ houses.”
“When we find dealers on the streets from London, they’ve generally all got somewhere they’ll go back to. COVID has made travelling on the train more risky for them, so they prefer to find a local base to operate from.”
Spotting the signs that cuckooing is taking place is one way that the public can look out for their neighbours and help stop this criminal activity.
“Every case is slightly different, but we’d look for people who you wouldn’t expect to see at the premises,” said DCI White, when explaining what the signs are.
“Are there more people staying there than there should be? Is the property a mess? Is the owner guarded and fearful when talking? Are they not keeping appointments or letting other people into their house?”
“You might go to an old person’s house and see things that seem out of place; trainers, Coke cans and McDonald’s wrappers. There might also be signs of drug use, signs of money and phones. Often, the gang members are 15 or 16-year olds but it’s the people behind them that are the problem if you don’t let them stay – it’s the implied threat.”
“People with learning difficulties have come to us for help and struggled to express what is happening but they’re scared, they don’t want to go back to their house and are living on the beach because their house has been taken over by drug dealers.”
It is hoped that Operation Trespass will help the public to spot the signs and look out for their neighbours. By educating and informing the public, it will be much more difficult for the drug gangs to work their way into the homes of the vulnerable, and subsequently Essex communities.
DCI White said: “I know of numerous cases of people who have been trapped in a situation they cannot get themselves out of, merely by allowing someone into their home.”
“What seemed like a good idea at the time has led to months, sometimes years, of torture for them. Their lives have been completely taken over by the County Lines gang, which in some cases has made them suicidal, it’s really tragic.
“But if we can increase reporting and increase awareness, we can make it really difficult for these exploiters to get a foothold in our communities.”