Criminal gangs are grooming children with Prime drinks and Subway lunches, experts warn

 (Tim Marshall/Unsplash)
(Tim Marshall/Unsplash)

Children are being groomed into county lines gangs with offers of Prime drinks, Subway lunches and e-cigarettes as the cost-of-living crisis hits, charities warned.

Young people are being exploited by being trapped in “debt bondage” over low value goods including energy drinks that they cannot afford, a panel of experts said.

An eight-year-old boy was this week referred to a counter-trafficking service after being enticed with magazines and sweets, which he was later told to pay for, MPs on the education select committee heard.

Rebecca Griffiths, Head of National Counter-Trafficking Service at Barnardo’s said: “We think we are getting younger children who are being enticed in with things that they don’t have at the moment because of the cost-of-living crisis. It is a massive problem. It’s a changing and emerging exploitation type.”

She added that another young person was referred to her service this week after being given a Subway lunch by exploiters. The young person was then told to repay the debt but could not afford to. She said: “That’s how it starts - with small numbers.”

She added: “What happens with debt bondage in any form, whether it be money or gifts, is the child thinks ‘they are giving me stuff’, and at another point that deb has to be paid off.”

She added: “We are seeing e-cigarettes and Prime drinks - we think that might become more of a problem as we go on where children are wanting stuff and traffickers are using that to reel them in.”

County lines gangs exploit young people by using them as runners to move drugs from cities to provincial areas of the country where they will be stored or sold.

Johnny Bolderson from Catch22, which supports and rescues people caught up in county lines, said online gaming and social media is the “foundation” for county lines recruitment. He told MPs professional looking county lines recruitment adverts are being targeted at children on Snapchat and Instagram.

He said: “The pandemic really pushed young people and vulnerable people to online gaming…exactly where exploiters and groomers want that person to be.

“It’s the only way they can get hold of them in that way directly, so online gaming, social media is perfect for them.”

Susannah Drury, Director of Policy and Development at Missing People, said: “All young people are at risk of this type of exploitation because all of our young people are on social media - they are all at risk.”

Ms Griffiths warned there is an emerging trend where exploiters target the children of shift workers including police and nurses, adding: “Traffickers will do anything to make sure their business is going well. They will look and see where the vulnerability is. We are getting children where families are not around because they are working and trying to make ends meet.”

She added that some children enter gang life because they want to provide for their families if they are struggling financially.

Ms Drury said many parents are desperate to help their child escape and want to pay off their debts, but she warned this could alert the exploiters there is potential to get more money from that family.