Britain is riddled with hundreds of hard drug-dealing communication lines used by gangs that exploit vulnerable children and teenagers, the National Crime Agency has found.
Fresh analysis has revealed that dealers supplying heroin and crack cocaine use at least 720 so-called "county lines" in which urban gangs use a phone line to move their supply of class A drugs into county or coastal towns.
It’s a distribution model present across England and Wales, the NCA said, which often uses children as drug runners.
The report boasts data from every police force in England and Wales, as well as Police Scotland and British Transport Police.
The Children's Society warned that gangs often groom young people using alcohol and drugs and with the promise of status and wealth.
The report "sheds light on the shocking scale of the grooming and exploitation of children by criminal gangs,” the charity's chief executive Matthew Reed said, adding, "the figures revealed could be just the tip of the iceberg.”
"The stories we have heard from young victims of 'county lines' exploitation are horrifying and absolutely heartbreaking.
"Gangs are grooming the most vulnerable young people in our society with drugs and alcohol or promises of status and wealth, then using threats, violence and sexual abuse to coerce and control their victims.
"The coercion of children into drug dealing is traumatic and puts them at great risk - they are often forced to carry drugs inside their bodies, and sent across the country to stay in 'trap houses' and sell drugs to dangerous adults.”
Lawrence Gibbons, the NCA's head of drugs threat and intelligence, said: "The data tells us that county lines groups continue to exploit the vulnerable, including children and those with mental health or addiction problems, at all points of their drug supply routes.
"Effective collaboration between law enforcement and safeguarding organisations must remain a vital part of the national response."
Duncan Ball, National Police Chief's Council (NPCC) lead on county lines said the report "highlights the extent of this activity across the country".
He added: "We've already been conducting operations across policing to tackle the violence associated with these lines and perhaps more significantly the real harm through the criminal exploitation of young people by organised gangs and groups."
Responding to the report, the Government said on Tuesday it is working to ensure police forces and the NCA have sufficient powers to ensure mobile phone companies shut down lines used for drugs.
"This Government is taking strong action to tackle county lines gang activity and the associated violence, drug dealing and exploitation, which have a devastating impact on young people, vulnerable adults and local communities,” a Home Office spokeswoman said.
"We are in the process of introducing regulations to give the police and the National Crime Agency powers to make sure mobile network companies close down phone lines used for county lines drugs dealing.
"Home Office Ministers are co-ordinating the national response to this scourge by overseeing a county lines working group with other government departments, law enforcement agencies and local government represented.
"We are also funding local projects to tackle the damage caused by county lines gangs."