Drug dealers targeting vulnerable people for Cuckooing has become more prevalent as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, a high-ranking police officer has revealed.

Cuckooing is when drug gangs manipulate vulnerable people with drug and alcohol addictions, financial problems and learning difficulties to gain access to their properties.

Groups have also been known to target the elderly and young mothers, often befriending their victims by offering free gifts, protection or drugs.

The gang members then move into the victim’s home and turn it into a hive of criminal activity ¬– a staple tactic for county line drug gangs.

Victims find themselves trapped and threatened and in some cases, abandon their homes.

Detective Chief Inspector Jim White is part of the Essex Violence and Vulnerability and a specialist who deals with gangs, county lines, and violence.

“Cuckooing is part of the drug dealers’ business model, and it’s more prevalent now because of Covid,” said DCI White.

“The gangs would use Airbnb, guest houses or hotels to set up but now they’ve been forced to use individuals’ houses.

“When we find dealers on the streets from London, they’ve all got somewhere they’ll go back to. Covid has made travelling on the train more risky for them, so they prefer to find a base to operate from.”

DCI White says there a signs to look out for to know if a property is being cuckooed.

“Every case is slightly different, but we’d look for people who you wouldn’t expect to see at the premises,” said DCI White.

“Are there more people staying there than there should be? Is the property a mess? Is the owner guarded and fearful when talking? Are they not keeping appointments or letting other people into their house?

“You might go to an old person’s house and see trainers, Coke cans and McDonald’s wrappers. There might also be signs of drug use, signs of money and phones. Often, the gang members are 15 or 16-year-olds but it’s the people behind them that are the problem if you don’t let them stay – it’s the implied threat.

“People with learning difficulties have come to us and struggle to express what is happening but they’re scared, don’t want to go back to their house and are living on the beach because their house has been taken over by drug dealers.”

This month Essex Police will launch distribute 50,000 leaflets describing the signs of cuckooing and telling people who to go to for help.

DCI White is optimistic that publicising the issue and engaging the public will lead to positive results.

“I know of numerous cases of people have been trapped in a situation they cannot get themselves out of, merely by allowing someone into their homes.

“What seemed like a good idea at the time has led to months, sometimes years of torture for them. Their lives have been completely taken over by the county lines gang, which in some cases has made them suicidal, it’s really tragic.

“But if we can increase reporting and increase awareness, we can make it really difficult for these exploiters to get a foothold in our communities.”