The scale of the “county lines” trade, in which criminal networks exploit thousands of children and vulnerable adults to funnel hard drugs from cities to towns and rural areas, is greater than crime-fighting chiefs previously thought, with a fresh assessment revealing a £500m industry linked to murder and sexual exploitation.

County lines involves gangs in cities such as London, Birmingham and Liverpool using children as young as 11 to deal mostly heroin and crack cocaine over a network of dedicated mobile phones.

The number of individual phone numbers identified by law enforcement officials as being used on established county lines networks is now 2,000 – nearly three times the 720 previously established, the National Crime Agency (NCA) said.

In its annual assessment of the county lines trade, the NCA said the phone numbers were linked to about 1,000 branded networks, with a single line capable of making £800,000 profits in a year.

County lines offenders have been caught using mass marketing text messages to advertise drugs with promotions such as two-for-one deals and free samples, the report revealed.

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