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Criminal Exploitation

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What is Criminal Exploitation?

Criminal exploitation is the deliberate manipulation or abuse of power and control over another person. It is taking advantage of another person or situation for criminal purposes for personal gain. Exploitation comes in many forms, including slavery and being controlled by a person or a group.

Adults at risk (see safeguarding) are most likely to be exploited but anyone can be the target for criminal exploitation.

Some of the risks to the adult when they become involved in criminal exploitation include:

  • Being arrested, including for crimes committed by other members of their gang which they have not directly committed (law of joint enterprise)
  • Subject to threats, blackmail, violence and emotional abuse. Including threats towards family and friends (including threat of reporting to social services so they’ll be taken away from family, adding fear of social services).
  • Abusing drugs, alcohol and other substances
  • Being exploited to carry out further crimes
  • Not being able to leave or cut off ties with the person or gang
  • Risk of physical harm (including rape and sexual abuse) or being killed
  • Long term impact on employment options as some roles are not accessible to someone with a criminal record.

Grooming of adults

Grooming can occur in adults as well as children, with another adult grooming them. They do this by building relationships, trust and emotional connection so they can manipulate, exploit and/or abuse them. It can be difficult to identify, and someone is unlikely to know until after the event. Some key elements of adult-to-adult grooming is friendship forming, trust building, testing, isolation from friends and family, and abuse. Testing is where the offender uses behaviour to see how the potential target will react to manipulation, but also to see if there is the opportunity. At the abuse stage the offender will use the victim for their own needs and for personal gain. Grooming is associated with sexual abuse, but can also be about meeting an emotional need, if the victim tries to fight back then gaslighting tactics may be used to keep them under their control.

As with children, grooming can take place in person and online. The impacts of grooming on victims can be devastating – not just a criminal record but also the psychological and emotional effects of it. Grooming can take place in the workplace.

There are six types of criminal exploitation identified in a report by the Home Office in 2017:

  • Forced gang related criminality (see County lines and Cuckooing).
  • Forced labour in illegal activities (including cuckooing)
  • Forced acquisitive crime (such as shop lifting and pickpocketing)
  • Forced begging – victims are transported by offenders to locations to beg for money which is then taken from them.
  • Trafficking for forced sham marriage – exploiters marry victims to gain immigration, money and sexually abuse them.
  • Financial fraud – victims are exploited financially, including their benefits being taken from them.


Cuckooing is the term used to refer to an individual or gang taking over a property/home, normally belonging to a vulnerable person, which they then operate criminal activity from. Those exploited will often be exposed to physical, mental and sexual abuse.

Cuckooing is frequently linked with County Lines, which is when the drug gangs take over the home.

Victims of cuckooing are often drug users but can include older people (especially those isolated and lonely), those with learning difficulties, or those with mental or physical health problems, female sex workers, single mums and those living in poverty. Homes can be used for drug dealing, hosting offenders and those trafficked through county lines, cannabis farms and financial criminal activities.

The signs of cuckooing at a property can include:

  • Increase in people entering and leaving
  • Increase in cars or bikes outside
  • Possible increase in Anti-Social Behaviour
  • Increase litter outside
  • Signs of drugs use
  • Lack of healthcare visitors.

Gangs may target homes where social care workers are seen frequently attending, where they know those that have recently left care have moved to, or where they know the drug users live.

Whilst most cuckooing that is heard about involves the property being used to deal, store or take drugs, the property may be used for sex work, as a place for the offender(s) to live (rent free), or to take over the property to financially abuse the tenant.

  • Modern Slavery Act 2015 sets out the offences of slavery, servitude and forced compulsory labour in section 1, and human trafficking in section 2. Section 45 states the circumstances in which a person is not guilty of offence which includes “the person does that act as a direct consequence of the person being, or having been a victim of slavery or a victim of relevant exploitation…”. The Act provides the legislative framework to enable the effective prosecution and conviction of perpetrators of modern slavery (including criminal exploitation).
  • Serious Crime Act 2015 provides the legal offence of participating in the activities of an organised crime group and the preventative Serious Crime Prevention Orders, as well as strengthening on cyber-crime, gang injunctions and other measures to disrupt and halt crime. The Act also amended the statutory definition of what comprises a gang – consists of at least three people and can be identified by others as a group.
  • Criminal Finances Act 2017 provides powers to tackle money laundering, corruption and recover the proceeds of crime.
  • Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 covers a range of offences including possession, supply and production.
  • Prevention of Crime Act 1953 and the Criminal Justice Act 1998 may be appropriate for County Lines and other gangs as they provide offences involving offensive weapons.
  • Firearms Act 1968 covers the offence concerning firearms, shotguns and other weapons, their components and ammunition.
  • Offences against the Person Act 1861 covers offences such as common assault and attempted murder.
  • Policing and Crime Act 2009 provides provisions for injunctions to prevent gang-related violence and drug dealing activity against an individual
  • Crime and Disorder Act 1998 Statutory bodies have a statutory. responsibility to do all they reasonably can to prevent crime and disorder in their area and share information to protect communities from serious and organised crime.
  • Trafficking People for Exploitation Regulations 2013 protects those trafficked from criminal exploitations and puts in measures to protect victims.
  • Sexual Offences Act 2003 covers the sexual offences that may be part of criminal exploitation, including females being used against their will to initiate males into gangs through sexual activity.
  • Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 provides a range of measures that may be linked to gang behaviour and Criminal Behaviour Orders.
  • Digital Economy Act 2017 introduced the Drug Dealing Telecommunication Restriction Orders regulations, which compel mobile network operators to close down mobile phone lines and/or handsets used in drug dealing.
  • Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act 2014 sets out the statutory duty to safeguard adults at risk. The Wales Safeguarding Procedures provide additional information in regards to this

Social Care Wales: Safeguarding Awareness

Research in Practice (Podcast): County lines, criminal exploitation and cuckooing part one Greater Manchester’s learning part 1 and part 2

BBC News (YouTube): Up close with a county line (YouTube): Chris’s Story (cuckooing)

Help and Support

For victims, families and concerned people

Call 999 if a child is at immediate risk or call 101 if you think a crime has been committed, or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or online.

Adult Safeguarding services are available in each Local Authority across Wales (see safeguarding).

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is a single framework centred on a multi-agency approach to victim identification and referral to appropriate support. Police, Immigration, Local Authorities and some non-government organisations can refer suspected victims to the Single Competent Authority (SCA) for a decision. The SCA is part of the Home Office. Referral to the NRM requires consent for adults, but is not required for those under the age of 18.