Drug gangs are using Airbnb properties as short-term bases to deal heroin and cocaine amid an explosion in “county lines” dealing, officials have revealed.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) admitted that the scale of the dealing is three times larger than feared, seeing thousands of children exploited across the UK.
Police have identified around 2,000 phone lines being used to sell drugs to users, up from an estimated 720 in November.
The county lines mainly run from major cities into towns and rural areas, where children are sent to transport and package drugs in violently controlled territories.
Nikki Holland, the NCA lead on county lines, told a press conference: “We know Airbnb is being used; they [the drug gangs] are sending children to stay in short-term lets. We’re not getting regular intelligence at that level from the community on suspicious behaviour.”
Mass text messages are frequently used to advertise a new supply line, a report said, and gangs promote their product using free samples and two-for-one deals.
A line can generate up to £5,000 a day and gangs, which may run several each, are turning over an estimated £500m profit a year.
The NCA warned that the use of children and vulnerable adults was increasing, and that 15- to 17-year-old girls and boys are the largest group being groomed and exploited.
Police have found children as young as 10 being used, but said offenders may start building a relationship at an even younger age by playing on poverty, family breakdown, school exclusion and other vulnerabilities.
A senior officer said up to 10,000 children could be involved nationwide, with more being recruited in person and via social media to cut and bag drugs, transport them, collect debts and live in “cuckooed” properties.
Ann Coffey, the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, called county lines “the new grooming scandal”.
“We must stop blaming children and young people who are groomed by gangs,” she added. “They are victims in the same way as those who were sexually abused in places like Rotherham and Rochdale.”
Iryna Pona, policy manager at The Children’s Society, said the charity had seen young victims being stabbed, raped and tortured by county lines gangs.
“Professionals must get better at spotting the signs that children are being exploited and ensuring they get early help,” she added.
“Too many children exploited through county lines are still not being referred to the National Referral Mechanism – the system used to identify victims of modern slavery and human trafficking – and failing to get help from an independent advocate to ensure they are supported as victims and not criminals. Without that recognition, more vulnerable children will continue to be failed.”
Deputy assistant commissioner Duncan Ball, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for county lines, said there were fears that exploited children could grow into a new generation of gang leaders.
“People get groomed into gangs when they’re 12 or 13, and then make their way up from a street dealer to someone with more control,” he said. “That’s why intervention at early stage is important to identify those exploited to break the cycle.”
While boys make up the bulk of drug dealers and runners, girls and women are being sexually exploited or used for associated crime including shoplifting and money laundering.
Mr Ball said that many do not see themselves as victims because of their relationships with gang leaders, pay and luxury gifts, while others are controlled using violence, threats and debt bondage.
Ms Holland said the phenomenon was a national priority for law enforcement.
“We know that criminal networks use high levels of violence, exploitation and abuse to ensure compliance from the vulnerable people they employ to do the day-to-day drug supply activity,” she added.
“We will continue to disrupt their activity and take away their assets. We also need to ensure that those exploited are safeguarded and understand the consequences of their involvement.
“This is not something law enforcement can tackle alone – the need to work together to disrupt this activity and safeguard vulnerable victims must be the priority for everyone.”
Ms Holland said the dramatic rise in the estimated number of county lines was a result of improved reporting by police forces rather than a genuine increase, but that the model of drug dealing may be spreading.
The area covered by the Metropolitan Police exports the highest percentage of known lines, with 15 per cent, followed by the West Midlands Police (9 per cent) and Merseyside Police (7 per cent).
Police have worked with communications providers to take down several phone lines, but warned that the void created for local users can generate more crime.
The NCA said 10 per cent of identified lines have links to serious violence, but that the connection is underreported because stabbing victims are unlikely to tell police of their involvement in drug dealing.
Raids have uncovered guns, Tasers, crossbows, acid, swords, CS spray and machetes, while a wave of national operations last week saw a machine gun among 140 weapons seized.
From 21 to 27 January, 600 people were arrested in the raids, around 400 vulnerable adults and 600 children were safeguarded and 40 people were referred as potential modern slavery victims.
The NCA warned of an increase in the use of short-term lets – including Airbnbs – and guest houses to store drugs and cash, with gangs using victims to make bookings.
It also flagged up an “emerging trend” around the use of app-based taxi services to transport offenders and potential exploitation victims to supply areas.
A spokesperson for Airbnb said: “We have zero tolerance for inappropriate or illegal activity and permanently remove bad actors from our platform. We work closely with law enforcement and proactively reach out to relevant organisations on how we can work better together.”