County lines: How banks can spot vulnerable drug trafficking victims within transactional data

08.24.2021 | By Mark Speyers

Latest estimates say 27,000 children in the UK are involved in county lines drug trafficking and have often been recruited through social media grooming or physical or sexual coercion. This isn’t a problem only unique to the UK.

No single team can tackle this on their own and up until now, law enforcement has been working on unearthing leads in silo. Banks have millions of transactional threads at their fingers tips, and can leverage this goldmine to be an important part of the solution. But, this ability is often overlooked due to a lack of understanding when it comes to what type of activity and profiles to look out for.

Banks have a duty of care to their customers, which include young and vulnerable people, and regulatory requirements to report illegal activity. Beyond their duty of care, the dawn of ‘ethical consumerism’ has encouraged consumers to consider the social and environmental impact of the products and services they use.

According to a Deloitte global millennial survey, consumers often put their wallets where their values are, stopping or initiating relationships based on how companies treat the environment, and position themselves on social and political issues. This year, almost a third of respondents started or deepened consumer relationships with companies based on their response to the COVID-19 crisis, while around a quarter stopped or lessened relationships for the same reason. Banks are starting to really understand this too and are seeing consumer behaviour change.

How do county lines drug trafficking business work?

Drug trafficking businesses are run as a classical pyramid, with a small number at the top importing drugs and wholesaling out to wider networks, down to the vast quantities of ‘runners’ (i.e. street dealers or distributors) on the ground.

The “lines” part in county lines refers to the phone lines that each group use to market drugs to users. The National Crime Agency has identified at least 3,000 different lines across the UK and each one can earn between £2,000 and £5,000 per day or up to an estimated £800,000 in profits per year. One line identified by North Yorkshire Police in 2018 saw 25,000 bulk text messages sent in only four months, advertising drugs for sale. With the ever increasing channels of communication, there is little stopping new lines emerging under the radar.

The role of banks in spotting vulnerable victims

As Matt Edwards from the UK Financial intelligence Unit (UKFIU) SAR enquiries and action team said: “We would encourage reporters to ensure all their staff are upskilled to identify relevant activity (of County Lines), and articulate these suspicions clearly within their own submissions“. This means law enforcement expect banks to learn all they can about these behaviours so they can submit clear and articulate Suspicious Activity Reports (SAR) giving the police the best chance to meaningfully disrupt such criminal activity.

But, what does this activity look like? And, what should banks look for?

More detail on what banks should look out for has been outlined in our ‘Drug Trafficking – County Lines’ FinCrime Threat Intelligence lite report, available for download here. From this report, banks can start to understand the profile of typical runners, the types of behaviour to look for, the links between key indicators which build up a picture of a potential risk and how it should be reported.

Moral obligation to protect those who can’t protect themselves

The sad truth is that many young county lines runners don’t perceive themselves to be victims; they’re young and impressionable, and are typically groomed to either believe someone cares about them, or that their involvement is the only way to provide for their families. In many cases this last point is tragically true in places where there is very little social mobility. Intimidation and threats of violence are also used to recruit their ideal social profile victims, which in turn make it difficult to exit the business.

Elders/gang leaders are careful to avoid creating a financial footprint, so identifying county lines activity involves identifying vulnerable profiles and looking for a series of indicators. We suggest the first step the banking industry can take is to try and identify the lowest-level of criminality, from which law enforcement can protect the individuals that need protecting and investigate links to higher-level criminals.

The modus operandi of county lines groups will continue to shift over time and as part of our own moral obligation, we will continue to research the county lines problem and its footprint in the banking system, which will be shared with our subscribers as we notice behavioural profile changes.

For more insight into county lines behaviours and what to look out for in transactional banking data, download the ‘Drug Trafficking – County Lines’ report.

Nicola Eschenburg takes a look at how banks can spot vulnerable drug trafficking victims within transactional data in her latest blog

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