This chapter discusses ‘cuckooing‘, which is the term used when professional criminal gangs target the homes of adults who they have identified as vulnerable. It provides information about victims, perpetrators, signs and what action to take if cuckooing is suspected.


County Lines: Criminal Exploitation of Adults


County Lines and Cuckooing (Crimestoppers)

April 2024: This section has been updated throughout to reflect the latest Home Office County Lines guidance.

1. Introduction

‘Cuckooing‘ also known as forced home invasion, is when criminals (usually drug dealers) takeover the home of a vulnerable person, for example care leavers or people with addiction, physical disabilities or mental health issues. They then use the property as a base for their criminal activity, including dealing and storing drugs, storing weapons and / or money or as a base for sex work. Cuckooing is a form of criminal exploitation and is a common feature in county lines exploitation (see County Lines: Criminal Exploitation of Adults chapter).

2. Who is at Risk?

Adults at risk of cuckooing include:

  • people with drug or alcohol problems;
  • young people who are care leavers;
  • people already known to the police;
  • older people who live alone with no support network;
  • people who have mental or physical health problems;
  • people with learning disabilities;
  • female sex workers;
  • single mums; and
  • people living in poverty.

Victims are often people with care and support needs, even if they are not already receiving support from services.

Where the victim is known to use drugs, criminals often offer them free drugs in return for being able to use their home for dealing.

Once the criminals have gained control of the adult and their home, the victim is at significant risk of physical and psychological abuse, sexual exploitation and violence. Victims are often used as drug runners, forced to move drugs from one place to another on behalf of the criminals. They are threatened with violence if they do not agree (see also County Lines: Criminal Exploitation of Adults chapter).

Victims are unlikely to the police or tell other professionals what is happening, as they may be frightened that they will be suspected of being involved in drug dealing themselves or that they will face repercussions or punishment from the gang.

They may also be afraid that they could be evicted from their home. Some victims feel they are forced out of their homes, or are actually made to leave their home by the gang, which makes them homeless.

3. Signs of Cuckooing

3.1 Signs an adult is being exploited or abused

Signs that an adult is being exploited or abused include:

  • they get more telephone calls or people calling to their property than they usually do;
  • they have physical injuries that they cannot, or do not, explain;
  • they seem quiet and withdrawn;
  • they are known or suspected to be carrying or selling drugs;
  • they are going missing from home or college, work or work placements;
  • they have new clothes and / or possessions, more than one mobile phone or money than they can usually afford;
  • they start to miss appointments with services and do not respond to messages.

3.2 Signs of cuckooing in a local neighbourhood

All types of properties can be cuckooed including rental and private properties, student accommodation and commercial premises. Signs that a property has been cuckooed include:

  • unfamiliar people are entering and leaving the property, often throughout the day and night. In supported or shared accomodation, staff might notice an increase in key fob activity;
  • an increase in the number of people walking to the property or loitering in the area around it;
  • young people visiting the property;
  • an increase in the number of cars (including vehicles which have not visited before), bikes, or taxis or hire cars outside the property;
  • electric scooters and scooter helmets around the property;
  • an increase in anti-social behaviour and signs of drug use in and around the property, including litter and discarded needles or crack pipes for example;
  • an increase in noise and disturbance levels, including late night parties or arguments;
  • damage to the property such a broken windows or doors;
  • curtains and blinds which are always closed;
  • threats or intimidation towards other residents or neighbours.

Information about possible cuckooing cases can come from a range of different sources such as neighbours, partner agencies and the wider public. Professional curiosity is therefore important as information from different sources may need to be pieced together.

4. Taking Action

Where an individual is at risk of, or experiencing exploitation, it is a legal requirement that practitioners share that information with the relevant agencies. This may include sharing information without the adult’s consent where they may be being coerced or under duress, to prevent a crime being committed.

If a person is at immediate risk of harm, the police should be contacted by calling 999.

If the person is not at immediate risk of harm, staff should talk to the adult and then concerns should be shared with the local authority safeguarding adults team (see Local Contacts) and the police on 101.

This might involve a practitioner contacting the designated lead for safeguarding adults in their own organisation, who will then make a safeguarding adults referral; or, the practitioner can contact adult social care directly.

The local authority and partners agencies will then consider whether action is required to protect the adult victim. This may include a discussion about whether the person has care and support needs, if they have mental capacity (see Mental Capacity chapter) and if they do, whether the inherent jurisdiction applies in their case. This is when a person with mental capacity is coerced or unduly influenced by another person, in a way which restricts their ability to freely make their own decisions.

The adult should be at the centre of discussions and any decisions that are taken during the safeguarding or inherent jurisdiction process. See Making Safeguarding Personal chapter.

All concerns should be recorded in the adult’s records as along with details of all actions that have been taken and decisions that have been made (see Case Recording chapter).

4.1 Modern slavery and the National Referral Mechanism

If the adult has also been forced by a criminal gang to move drugs from one place to another, this is criminal exploitation and a form of modern slavery. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) provides a framework for identifying and referring potential modern slavery victims and ensuring they receive appropriate support.

First responder organisations, which include the local authority and the police (see Modern Slavery chapter, appendix 1) should refer adult victims of modern slavery to the NRM if they give their consent to this.  Even if the adult does not consent to the NRM referral, there is still a ‘duty to notify’ the Home Office that a potential victim of modern slavery has been identified. Full details can be found in the Modern Slavery chapter.  Any referral to the NRM or notification to the Home Office should come after the appropriate safeguarding steps have been taken and multi-agency discussions have been held.

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