OUT-OF-TOWN drug dealers looking to base themselves in south Essex are taking over the homes of vulnerable people, police have warned.

The tactic, known as “cuckooing”, after the way cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, involves gangs taking over drug users’ homes to store and deal drugs.

The gangs, often from London, will take over a house and flat and keep on using it until they either get raided by police, or housing associations and other landlords find out about them.

Often the hapless tenants allow their homes to be used because they are scared to argue or report what is going on.

Sgt Ben Woollard, who is working with the Operation Raptor team, set up to tackle and disrupt drug-dealing gangs in the area, said his team had encountered the practice in both Southend and Basildon.

He added: “We are acutely aware of people who have their homes taken over by drug-dealing gangs and are under duress.

“At the forefront of our minds is the vulnerability of the victims of cuckooing.

“We will look to secure the safety of the individual, by getting them moved, using partner agencies or employing other tactics.

“They are often vulnerable, by the nature of their addiction, and we try to tackle that head-on as well.”

Sgt Woollard urged the public to keep their eyes peeled for possible cuckooing operations, and to report anything suspicious straight away.

He added: “People need to be aware of suspicious activity, such as people coming and going to the address who aren’t normally there, or shouting and noise from inside a property.”

The team – two sergeants and eight PCs – was set up after tactical teams in Basildon and Southend were merged in last October’s force reshuffle.

The old teams also tackled burglaries, but Raptor is focusing solely on gang activity.

For the past three weeks, officers from the unit have also been working on Operation Border, a push to to stop and search suspected dealers, execute search warrants and stop-check vehicles of interest, based on intelligence passed on to the force.

Earlier this week, officers raided a house in Pattiswick Square, Basildon, in a bid to thwart suspected class A drug dealing.

After smashing down the door with a battering ram, the team carried out a detailed search,A44- year-old man from Basildon was reported for possession of class A drugs, but nobody was arrested for drug dealing.

Insp Dave Richards, who is in charge of the Operation Raptor team, said: “Operation Border has been a great success.

“Over twoweeks, we havemade 20 arrests and eight people have either been charged or reported for drugs offences. Three of those have been remanded in custody.

“Drug dealers prey on and exploit the most vulnerable in our communities, taking over their homes and using them as a base from which to supply drugs.

“This not only exposes the already vulnerable to increased risk of harm, but leads to the antisocial behaviour linked with drug dealing, which is unpleasant for residents.

“Operation Border aims to tackle those who exploit the most vulnerable in our communities, including children, by disrupting and dismantling gangs, taking drugs out of circulation and making the south of our county a safer place.

“We’ve been linking in with partner agencies to provide support for those affected by the actions of drug dealers, as well as working with the Crown Prosecution Service to bring offenders to justice before the courts.”

Anyone with information about drug dealing in their community is urged to call police on 101, or Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555111.