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Knowledge Base » Safeguarding » Unravelling the Dark World of Child Criminal Exploitation

Unravelling the Dark World of Child Criminal Exploitation

The exploitation of children by criminals has been happening for a long time, and the effects of child exploitation can be devastating, and can have a profound impact on children for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, child exploitation is a serious and growing crime. These are crimes that are prevalent in all of our communities, not only in large cities, and are likely to be happening in rural towns and villages all over the UK too. As child criminal exploitation does not always involve physical contact, it can also occur through the use of technology, and barely a week goes past without a devastating new story reaching the news headlines.

A prime example that has been headline news is child criminal exploitation in Rochdale, Lancashire. Significant numbers of young people and vulnerable adults were identified as part of a Greater Manchester Police operation, led by the Rochdale Challenger Team, as being criminally exploited by members of an organised crime group involved in dealing Class A and Class B drugs. The young people and adults involved were being threatened and coerced into handling, bagging up and dealing drugs, for the benefit of the organised crime group’s enterprise. The initial investigation identified over 30 children who were in contact with the gang following analysis of mobile phones. 

This case is the tip of a very large iceberg. According to the Children’s Society, 46,000 children in England are thought to be involved in gangs and there are likely to be many more, as 4,000 teenagers are thought to be being criminally exploited in London alone. There are more than 5 million children aged 11-17 years in England and Wales, and experts believe significant numbers are now at “greater risk” of criminal exploitation and will lack adult supervision either online or in the outside world, making them more vulnerable to criminal gangs. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown measures led to an increase in online exploitation, as organised criminal gangs looked for new ways to groom, recruit and exploit children after their traditional methods were disrupted. Even since lockdown measures have ended, this increase in online exploitation has continued, and given the mounting financial pressures that families are facing in the current cost of living crisis, organised criminal gangs and individuals could look to exploit this and draw more children into criminal exploitation, making the need to address child criminal exploitation all the more urgent.

A joint report from Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, and HM Inspectorate of Probation, warned that all children, not just the most vulnerable, are at risk of criminal exploitation and that it is a risk that should not be underestimated. The Department for Education data shows the number of children in England referred to social services as potential victims increased by 42% in the year ending April 2023. But fewer than one in 10 of those potential victims were supported or protected by the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), a government framework designed to help at-risk children.

A collaborative study conducted by the University of Nottingham Rights Lab and ECPAT UK published in January 2024, has identified the current reality of child criminal exploitation in the UK and signalled a critical call to action. The research sheds light on the persistent challenges stemming from gaps in resources and policy, especially in the absence of a UK-wide Child Exploitation Strategy.

Understanding Child Criminal Exploitation

Understanding Child Criminal Exploitation

In England, there is currently no statutory definition of child criminal exploration. The children’s charity Barnardo’s and The Children Society’s preferred definition for child criminal exploitation is: “Child criminal exploitation is when another person, or persons manipulate, deceive, coerce or control the person to undertake activity which constitutes a criminal offence where the person is under the age of 18 years.” 

The Home Office definition of child criminal exploitation goes a little further and defines it as: “Child Criminal Exploitation occurs where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 years. The victim may have been criminally exploited even if the activity appears consensual. Child Criminal Exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology.”

Criminal exploitation often happens alongside sexual or other forms of exploitation. Exploited children are forced or coerced to:

  • Work in domestic servitude
  • Work on cannabis farms
  • Commit theft
  • Shoplift
  • Beg
  • Pickpocket
  • Move drugs, money or weapons across county lines* or within their locality
  • Launder money** through their bank accounts
  • Carry out crimes of theft or violence, particularly against other young people or to threaten other young people

Children may also have been trafficked around the UK or to the UK from another country and forced into child labour, modern slavery or criminal activities.

* County lines is a violent and exploitative form of drug distribution used by gangs and organised criminal networks. A common feature of county lines is the exploitation of children, young people and vulnerable adults who are instructed to deliver and/or store drugs, and associated money or weapons, to dealers or drug users, locally or in other counties. Criminals may also use a vulnerable person’s home as their base of operations. This is known as cuckooing. Many of the characteristics of county lines exploitation will be present in other forms of child criminal exploitation such as those listed above. Likewise, victims of county lines may also experience other overlapping forms of exploitation, such as sexual exploitation, in addition to criminal exploitation.

** Money laundering, sometimes referred to as “money muling”, is the term used to describe the action of using a young person’s bank account to move money obtained from illegal sources. Through the process of money laundering, criminals will introduce the proceeds of their crimes into the banking system as a way of attempting to disguise its origin, making it appear as though it has come from a legitimate source.

Child criminal exploitation takes a variety of forms but ultimately it is the grooming and exploitation of children into criminal activity. A child may have been exploited even if it looks as if they have been a willing participant, and many exploited children do not see themselves as victims. The child does not need to have met whoever is exploiting them, as children can be exploited via the internet or using mobile phones. They can also be targeted via social media platforms and gaming forums.

Children can be exploited by individuals or groups, men or women, and adults or young people, and the people who exploit children use the fact that they have power over children. This might be because of an age difference, or some other factor such as gender, intelligence, strength, status or wealth; it is this power imbalance that allows them the ability to exploit.

The Vulnerable Victims

The Vulnerable Victims

Any child can be a victim of child criminal exploitation, not just those who are known to social care or local authorities. It can happen in all areas of the country, in cities, towns and villages. Some of the major risk factors can include:

  • A history of neglect or abuse, particularly sexual abuse
  • Not having a safe and stable home or homelessness
  • Being in care or leaving care
  • Recent bereavement or loss
  • Family breakdown
  • Poverty
  • Being a young carer
  • Loneliness, social isolation or other social difficulties such as lacking friends from the same age group
  • Unsure about their sexual orientation or unable to disclose their sexual orientation to their families
  • Connections with people involved in gangs or crime such as through relatives, peers or intimate relationships
  • Attending school or mixing with children and young people who are already criminally or sexually exploited
  • Living in a gang neighbourhood
  • Disability
  • Mental health issues or learning difficulties
  • Alcohol or drug problems
  • Being excluded from mainstream education
  • Low self-esteem or self-confidence

The cost of living crisis and the celebrity culture of displaying wealth and possessions are being seen as catalysts for children and young people seeing themselves as “have nots”, making them vulnerable to criminals promising a better, more affluent lifestyle.

Recruitment and Grooming Tactics

An individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, control, manipulate or deceive a child or young person under the age of 18 years into any criminal activity for the financial or other advantage of the perpetrator or facilitator, usually either in exchange for something the victim needs or wants or through violence or the threat of violence. At the start of an exploitative relationship, child criminal exploitation often occurs without the child’s immediate recognition, with the child believing that they are in control of the situation. 

The recruitment of young people for criminal exploitation will often involve grooming. Grooming is when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of exploitation or trafficking. Children and young people can be groomed online or face to face, by a stranger or by someone they know, for example a family member, friend or professional. Groomers may be male or female and they could be any age. Grooming may be a phased, gradual process that can take place over varying periods of time. Contact may be direct or through a child’s school peers, friends, siblings or neighbours. Many children disclose that the initial contact was made by someone they regarded as an equal, and many children and young people don’t understand that they have been groomed, or that what has happened is abuse.

Face-to-face grooming could be a friendship, romantic relationship or a relationship of dependence in which the groomer provides something that is valued by the child, such as money, gifts or acceptance. Once they have gained the child’s trust, the groomer will try to isolate them and make them feel reliant and dependent; coercion, intimidation, force and blackmail may be used to establish power and control.

Online grooming has become significant in forms of exploitation such as criminal or sexual exploitation and radicalisation as it allows people from many different backgrounds and locations to be exploited, including those who may not otherwise be at risk of exploitation. Criminal gangs have been using Instagram to entice young people by showing them lavish lifestyles and the wealth of young people of similar ages. Then they get a message saying, “Do you want to know how to make quick money?” The young person believes this person is out to help them to achieve similar success, and they are then tricked into fraudulent criminal activities. 

Criminals also use gaming to groom children. Trades or gifts within gaming can be used to gain contact with a child. They may offer gifts asking for nothing in return, which can be part of the grooming process and can help to build a close relationship with a child or young person. There have been instances where predators groomed children online on Minecraft. This inappropriate communication began through the game’s interactive feature and ultimately moved to other messaging platforms.

Often criminals will share a job advert on social media that may include phrases such as “easy money” or “no experience necessary”. Some of these adverts may also be accompanied by images of lots of cash. If the advert sounds too good to be true, then it usually is.

Grooming often follows a pattern. The befriending stage involves the exploiters using coercive and non-coercive seductive and deceptive behaviour. Following the befriending stage, the child’s enchantment with the groomer can override and weaken the child’s ability to see through and resist the coercion and deception. This then moves to control; for example, when the child expresses unwillingness to participate in the criminal activity the exploiters start making threats. In the later stages, the exploiters build upon the alienation which may have begun in earlier stages through, for example, the child’s truanting, deception and dependence. The exploiters continue to seek to sever the child’s links with family, friends and other support systems. Distance means the exploiters’ activities go unhindered.

Once recruited and groomed, the criminals can employ several methods to force, coerce, and/or entice victims into performing crimes for them, such as:

  • Offering an exchange – carrying drugs or weapons in return for something, such as money, clothes, drugs, status, protection or perceived friendship, a sense of belonging or identity, or affection
  • Emotional abuse or psychological coercive control – by manipulating, threatening, controlling or monitoring the movements of the victim
  • Abduction or kidnapping – sometimes victims are forcibly moved and held in a location away from home
  • Physical violence or threats of violence – used to intimidate and punish victims and their families and can involve weapons, including knives and firearms
  • Blackmail – by forcing victims to commit a crime so they can hold it over them and threaten to report it if they do not comply further
  • Debt bondage – a form of entrapment when a victim owes money to their exploiters and is made to repay their debt, either financially or through another means such as transporting drugs
  • Sexual abuse and exploitation – this can be experienced by all genders
Criminal Activities Involving Children

Criminal Activities Involving Children

There are over 2,000 county lines operating across the UK and young people aged 14-17 are most likely to be exploited in this way by criminal groups, although children in much younger age groups are also being used. To reduce the risk to themselves the dealers will use children who they think others will not suspect. County lines has contributed to putting a large number of drugs and weapons on the streets. Sometimes gangs form a secure base in the home of a vulnerable young person, forcing assistance through violence or exploiting a drug dependency. Children and young people involved in county lines may go missing or be out of touch for long periods. During these times, they may be at risk of harm or violence.

Children and young people are being groomed online to open bank accounts, or provide details of their bank account and launder criminal money. The young person may not even be aware that this is what they are doing. They might be asked to deposit a large sum of money into their account, and then transfer that sum to another account. The young person is left with the consequences, as the account may be frozen and will impact their future credit rating. 

The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10 years old. This means that children under 10 can’t be arrested or charged with a crime. Criminal gangs are recruiting very young children who are groomed and trained for criminal activities such as begging, pickpocketing or shoplifting. These are sometimes known as Fagin gangs after the character in Oliver Twist.

Real-Life Examples of Child Exploitation

A predatory gang used vulnerable young girls to commit fraud across the country. Girls, aged 14 on average, were recruited, trained and trafficked as far as Devon or Glasgow to commit fraud in high street stores such as Boots and Tesco using fake receipts. The girls would be ordered to place fake barcodes on high-value items such as electric toothbrushes and electric razors to pay a much cheaper price, before later asking for a refund at the full price. They stayed in hotels overnight before being trafficked along routes similar to county lines methods used by drugs gangs. 

Police said a typical day would include theft and fraud from over 10 stores, making thousands of pounds per ‘route’ for the modern slavery gang based in London, Essex and Cambridge. If the girls were caught, they were abandoned by gang leaders wherever they were in the country. Detectives were alerted to the nationwide scam when missing children from London were being found hundreds of miles from home. Sergeant PJ Jones, of the Metropolitan Police’s Predatory Offender Unit, said the victims were paid £50 for referring a friend into the gang, and in perks such as takeaway meals. 

The girls were recruited because of their vulnerability, with many living in foster homes or suffering mental health problems. The criminals embedded themselves through peer groups of vulnerable people and recruited, coached, transported and used teenage girls around the country to commit refund fraud in high street stores and use their accounts to launder money. Two girls were arrested at one point but the prosecution service worked with police to advise no further action against them and evidence of their involvement was used against the gang.

By March 2020, the group, led by a husband and wife team, had yielded approximately £500,000 in profits as a result of their large-scale fraud conspiracy. The pair were eventually convicted at Snaresbrook Crown Court as well as assigned their “team leaders”. 

In March 2023, ITV news reported that children as young as seven were being exploited by county lines drugs gangs. Victims were coerced through violence, blackmail and debt bondage, to hold and supply drugs. Metropolitan police officers made more than 200 arrests and seized over one million pounds worth of drugs during a week-long crackdown on county lines gangs. The 222 arrests also led to:

  • 105 people charged with a total of 223 charges
  • 150 drug trafficking charges
  • 131 Class A and Class B drug charges
  • 177 vulnerable people safeguarded
  • 77 county lines being closed

Officers also seized:

  • 8.3 kilograms of Class A drugs and 37.6 kilograms of Class B drugs
  • £652,214 in cash
  • Five firearms and 51 weapons including knives, machetes and swords

British Transport Police identified a child at a train station who was avoiding coming to police attention. Grounds to stop and search were formed and it was established that the child had been missing for a number of days. He was in possession of two mobile phones and some Vaseline with a large amount scooped out of it, as well as some cash. The child later told officers that a ball of drugs which was wrapped in tape had been inserted into his anus. The child was taken to hospital and required surgery to repair the internal damage. The child described being exploited and intimidated to deal drugs in a market town and that threats had been made to his family, causing him to feel trapped to continue. The child was offered a rescue service and ongoing support from a voluntary sector organisation. Children’s services and the other agencies in the local authority have supported the whole family through the child protection framework. The investigation into this child’s exploitation has led to the charging and remanding of several adults and further children identified who were also being exploited.

These real-life examples of child exploitation highlight the magnitude and scope of these illegal operations.

The Impact on Victims

The Impact on Victims

Criminal exploitation of children, young people and vulnerable adults has a devastating impact on victims, families and local communities. The risk to a child or young person, and their family and friends, as a result of experiencing criminal exploitation can include, but is not limited to:

  • Physical injuries, including risk of serious violence and death
  • Emotional and psychological trauma
  • Sexual violence, including sexual assault, rape, internally inserting drugs, indecent images being taken and shared as part of initiation, revenge, or punishment
  • Debt bondage, where a child or young person and their families are in debt to the exploiters, which is then used to control the young person
  • Neglect, and the child or young person’s basic needs not being met
  • Living in unclean, dangerous and/or unhygienic environments that they have been placed in by their exploiters
  • Tiredness and sleep deprivation, where the child or young person is expected to carry out criminal activities over long periods and through the night
  • Poor attendance and/or attainment at school/college/university
  • Criminalised, criminal records, prison sentences

Being a victim of child criminal exploitation can negatively impact children and young people’s mental health in the following ways:

  • Being exposed to violence and other trauma can damage mental health
  • There may be the risk of repeated exposure to harmful online material
  • Ongoing suspicion or mistrust of others
  • Increase in hypervigilance and anxiety
  • Carrying out crimes can have a long-term impact on how an individual perceives themselves including negative self-critical thoughts and feelings of shame
  • Taking substances such as alcohol and drugs can increase young people’s risk-taking behaviour and impact on their mental health
  • Being involved in child criminal exploitation during childhood or early adolescence can impact on psychological development, including emotional regulation, communication, concentration, memory and focus

Legal Framework and Responses

As previously stated, in England, there is currently no statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. Under English criminal law there are a number of offences that relate to situations where adults exploit young people for modern slavery or trafficking, which may also apply to the criminal exploitation of children, and to offences related to the possession of drugs or drugs distribution. The area of legislation that criminal exploitation is most closely aligned with is modern slavery. Modern slavery covers a range of criminal offences that, in England and Wales, are defined under the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA 2015). Where there is not enough evidence to charge individuals with offences under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, perpetrators may be charged with a range of other offences including:

  • Offences under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 of cruelty to persons under 16 years. There is no similar offence in relation to children aged 16 and 17 years.
  • If the exploitation of a child involves benefit fraud and trafficking for exploitation could not be evidenced, offences under the Social Security Administration Act 1992, the Fraud Act 2006 and the Theft Act 1978 could be considered.
  • Where a child has been inappropriately removed from their family and held elsewhere, depending on the facts of the individual case, offences of child abduction (Sections 1 and 2 of the Child Abduction Act 1984), false imprisonment or kidnapping. These offences would only apply to children under the age of 16 years. Children aged 16 and 17 years are not offered the same protection.
  • The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 contains the principal offences relating to the misuse of controlled drugs and covers a range of offences including those dealing with possession, supply and production.
  • The Prevention of Crime Act 1953 and the Criminal Justice Act 1988 may be appropriate in connection with county lines activity, as they provide offences involving offensive weapons and items which have a blade or are sharply pointed.
  • County lines activity often involves offences against the person. Offences to be considered include common assault, those offences set out in the Offences against the Person Act 1861, and attempted murder.
  • The Serious Crime Act 2015 contains provisions that amend the statutory definition of what comprises a “gang”, as defined in section 34(5) of Part IV of the Policing and Crime Act 2009.
  • Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Although a controversial piece of legislation, it gives more powers for tougher sentences for child cruelty and neglect, increases the maximum penalties for child cruelty offences, and extends the offence of arranging or facilitating the commission of a child sex offence to cover a wider range of preparatory conduct in respect of sex offences committed against children under 13 years.

Trafficking and criminal exploitation are forms of abuse and therefore should be afforded a safeguarding response. Local authorities have a duty under the Children Act 2004 to work with local police and health partners to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area. If a child has been being exploited, there may be a need for close collaboration across areas if this has taken place across borders, for example in the case of county lines. Safeguarding Partners in each area work collaboratively to strengthen the child protection and safeguarding system in the local area. They consist of the local authority, the clinical commissioning group (CCG) for any area that falls under the local authority, and the chief officer of police for any area that falls under the local authority. Further information on safeguarding can be found in the Department for Education’s Working Together to Safeguard Children Guidance.

Identifying Signs and Intervention

Identifying Signs and Intervention

Child criminal exploitation often leaves signs. Any sudden changes in a child or young person’s lifestyle should be discussed with them. Signs that someone is being groomed for or involved with child criminal exploitation may include, but are not limited to:

  • Becoming secretive
  • Isolating from existing friendships and social groups
  • Spending increased or unusually excessive amounts of time online day and night
  • Developing new friendships, including with friends met online
  • Meeting friends in unusual places
  • Entering or leaving vehicles/cars with unknown adults
  • Developing a strong attachment to a particular individual, who may appear dominant and controlling
  • Having an older boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Self-harm or significant changes in emotional well-being, personality or behaviour
  • Increased interest in making money
  • Acquiring new items such as money, credit cards, clothes, jewellery or mobile phones, without explanation
  • Receiving or sending money, gifts or gaming tokens/coins to someone online
  • Receiving large or unexplained sums of cash or deposits in a bank account
  • Unusual financial transactions or being made to make financial transactions they do not understand
  • Opening new accounts with banks or crypto exchanges
  • Having multiple mobile phones, SIM cards or use of a phone that causes concern, for example multiple callers or more texts/pings than usual. This could be a “burner phone”, often an older model which uses an unregistered SIM card, but it may also be a smartphone which can utilise web-based apps without a phone number
  • Anti-social behaviour or involvement in other criminality
  • Having access to drugs and alcohol and/or increasing use of drugs or alcohol
  • Use of drug and county lines-related slang
  • School exclusion(s) and/or a significant decline in school attendance, results or performance
  • Frequent missing episodes and being found in a different area to where they live
  • Possession of hotel keys/cards or keys to unknown premises or possession of train tickets for unusual train journeys
  • Possession of a rucksack or a bag that they are very attached to or will not put down
  • Being in possession of lubricants, condoms or similar packaging
  • Suspicion of physical assault / unexplained injuries; these tend to be visible but minor injuries which are issued as a threat, such as cigarette burns or small cuts, but can also be much more serious life-threatening injuries, such as stab wounds
  • Being arrested in a different area to where they live, especially for shoplifting or drug-related offences

Any child or young person who you think may be at risk of child criminal exploitation requires a safeguarding response. If you believe a person is at immediate risk of harm, contact the police by calling 999. 

Parents/carers, families or anyone in the community concerned about a child, should access Report Child Abuse to Your Local Council, an online tool which directs to the relevant local authority children’s social care contact number.

The statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children sets out what professionals and organisations in England need to do, individually and in partnership with other agencies, to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people.

Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP) is part of the National Crime Agency working with child protection partners across the UK and overseas to bring offenders to account. The website facilitates a report function for online sexual abuse, grooming and concerns of inappropriate contact online. Children can report directly or a friend/adult concerned about a child can report. There is also information provided for police and private sector reporting. Call: 0370 496 7622 (National Crime Agency) Email:

Support and Rehabilitation

Individuals who have been groomed and exploited into criminal activity have not freely chosen to be involved, cannot consent to being exploited and so should be seen as victims first and foremost. Providing support and rehabilitation services for children who have been exploited, including counselling and alternative education opportunities, can help them rebuild their lives. Interventions have included:

  • Mental health support to help victims manage trauma
  • Confidence building
  • Housing support
  • CV writing and employability support
  • Support from a lived experience mentor

Organisations such as Catch22 work with young people and adults providing intervention, rehabilitation and victim services in prison and in the community. They work within the community, using an end-to-end approach to work with individuals, families, schools, custodial estates and communities to reduce gang involvement and its effects, to prevent children and young people from becoming involved in gangs, and to provide a range of interventions for gang-involved young people to support them to exit.

The Children’s Society runs a programme Disrupting Exploitation Programme, funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, which is aimed at making children safer, giving them a better understanding of exploitation, and improving their relationships with family and friends.

Preventive Measures

Preventive Measures

The UK’s approach to tackling child criminal exploitation includes legal, social and protective measures. Despite these efforts, challenges persist in effectively identifying and combating these issues. 

As part of the government’s approach to ending gang violence and exploitation, they have produced guidance for frontline professionals such as those working in health, education and children’s social care. They have also produced a child exploitation disruption toolkit for those working to safeguard children and young people under the age of 18 years from sexual and criminal exploitation.

Educational programmes in schools, colleges and communities about the risks of criminal exploitation and ways to seek help are crucial in helping to prevent children from being recruited into criminal activities.

2024 marks the 10th anniversary of the National Child Exploitation Awareness Day. The awareness day on 18th March aims to highlight the issues surrounding child exploitation, and the theme for 2024 is about encouraging everyone to think, spot and speak out against abuse and adopt a zero tolerance approach to child exploitation. There are events being held UK-wide, downloadable resources are also available, and people are encouraged to use the #CEADay24 in social media communications to help publicise the initiative.

The Way Forward

Child protection and safeguarding means protecting children from abuse, and identifying and stopping abuse that might already be happening. As we have seen in this article, child criminal exploitation is a particularly insidious form of child abuse which is unfortunately still on the increase. 

It is important that everyone is aware of the signs and indicators of child criminal exploitation and that they take steps to report any concerns so that children can get access to the help and support they deserve. Reporting safeguarding concerns can help to support law enforcement disruption activity and investigations, and assist in targeting and disrupting the perpetrators of child criminal exploitation, which is an integral part of protecting the victims.

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About the author

Luke Bell

Luke joined the team in February 2024 and helps with content production, working closely with freelance writers and voice artists, along with managing SEO. Originally from Winchester, he graduated with a degree in Film Production in 2018 and has spent the years since working in various job roles in retail before finding his place in our team. Outside of work Luke is passionate about gaming, music, and football. He also enjoys watching films, with a particular love of the fantasy and horror genres.

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