Gangs using AI bots to groom vulnerable children into drug dealing, expert warns

By Staff

Criminal gangs are using automated bots powered by artificial intelligence to sell drugs and groom vulnerable children, a child exploitation expert has warned. James Simmonds-Read, Prevention National Programme Manager at The Children’s Society, told MyLondon ‘perpetrators are always many steps ahead’ of law enforcement and agencies supporting children.

Mr Simmonds-Read, who has 20 years of experience with exploitation and abuse survivors and missing children, likened the ‘gamified’ tactics used by criminal gangs to the gambling industry. He also warned computer-savvy criminals are intentionally changing their online language to avoid police monitoring software, as well as employing AI to recruit vulnerable children.

“There’s concerns about AI being used,” Mr Simmonds-Read warned. “We are certainly seeing it in the context of children being sold drugs. The use of bots and things to connect with children and make offers of quick cash… We have been able to see it take place on certain platforms. People are seeing it on the ground, and by law enforcement.”

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Mr Simmonds-Read also said the term ‘County Lines’ had created a perception of cross-country drug trafficking, but dealers have adapted the size of their operations to avoid detection by drug taskforces like Home Office funded Operation Orochi.

“We are increasingly finding children are being moved shorter distances, to hold and move drugs or weapons, in locations much closer. It’s partly in response to good practice in tackling county lines,” he said. “Perpetrators are always many steps ahead.”

Mr Simmonds-Read also said criminal gangs are exploiting the cost of living crisis with offers of ‘easy cash’, at a time when ‘the gamification of online spaces has become normalised’ through the use of microtransactions. These are in-game payments, seen on popular video games like FIFA and Fortnight, where players can buy virtual goods like player upgrades or items.

With this in mind, Mr Simmonds-Read emphasised concerns about financial exploitation through social media and gaming. This happens when kids, who are offered cash in exchange for bank details, have their accounts filled with dirty money. It is a way to launder proceeds of crime, but for the child it can lead to jail and a closed bank account, pushing them further towards crime.

“Closing children’s bank accounts, putting them at financial risk. Then the criminals will take advantage of them,” Mr Simmonds-Read said. “We have had adults reach out and say I can’t get a mortgage or a bank account. Children are facing criminal prosecution even though they have no power or agency.”

In the past these children were called ‘money-mules’, but The Children’s Society says this de-humanises children and wants it changed to ‘victims of child financial exploitation’. Instead of seeing them as criminals, Mr Simmonds-Read has called on banks to protect children and for the justice system to recognise them as victims.

‘Growing evidence criminals target disabled children’

Mr Simmonds-Read also highlighted the need to recognise the reversal of gender stereotypes attached to forms of exploitation. Girls, who are normally seen as targets for sexual abuse, are also being used to hold drugs and weapons, while boys can be controlled by gang members who weaponize sexual abuse against them, the charity has found.

“In the last few years there’s a growing recognition that girls are being criminally exploited. It’s also trans and non-binary young people,” he said. “Girls are not just exploited to be abused sexually. It does happen but boys are also sexually abused in those contexts.”

Mr Simmonds-Read also shared concerns that disabled children are being specifically targeted. “We are seeing a real growing evidence of how many children being targeted and made to commit crime are children with additional learning needs and disabilities,” Mr Simmonds-Read said.

“Not only are they being manipulated and exploited, but then they are facing criminal prosecution. Criminals are actually seeking them out and targeting them because of their vulnerabilities.”

Met Police ‘failing to deal with child sexual exploitation’

A recent report, by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), concluded the Met Police is failing to deal with child exploitation, after finding victim blaming language among front-line officers, a frequently poor response to missing kids, and delays to investigations.

HMICFRS found a 14-year-old girl described as ‘seeking out sex with older men’; a 15-year-old girl referred to as ‘engaged in sex work’; and a 12-year-old rape victim described as ‘sexually active with older men’. The inspectorate said it was ‘worrying’ that supervisors failed to challenge the language, including one detective inspector who spoke of children ‘being promiscuous’.

Mr Simmonds-Read said The Children’s Society works closely with the Met and had seen examples of ‘really good practice’, but the findings of the report were ‘deeply disappointing’ and ‘really concerning’. He and the charity are calling for a statutory national definition of child criminal exploitation in law to help guide a joined-up professional response to the issue.

When MyLondon has joined the Met Police on drugs raids around London, police leaders have emphasised how search and rescue missions for missing children are also an opportunity to take out gang members higher up in the chain, whilst also safeguarding the victims of modern slavery and child criminal exploitation.

When police are able to locate a missing child, thought to be involved with a drugs gang, it can lead officers straight to a stash house. In the latest county lines intensification week this March, the Met safeguarded 210 vulnerable people. Mr Simmonds-Read said he was glad to see recent data that shows a growth in the number of safeguarded children.

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