Criminals are using the video game Fortnite to groom children as young as 12 to become drug mules, youth workers have warned.
The game’s virtual currency, v-bucks, is offered to children who want to buy extras for the game, such as costumes and dance moves for their characters, but cannot afford to do so.
After the child is used to receiving v-bucks, the drug dealers ask for something in return. They arrange to meet in person and often ask the child to store drugs in their bedroom or deliver them to customers.
Matthew Norford, 38, who works with young people at risk of criminal exploitation in Manchester through his scheme 1Message, says many children, mainly aged 12 or 13, had been approached by older people on Fortnite.
“It’s seen as cool to be playing with older guys from the local area,” said Norford. “Some of them, you can see they like the thrill. They like the organisation and being part of it.”
Norford knows of a 12-year-old who was approached on the game last year by someone he knew from the local estate. After sending him a friend request and striking up a conversation, the older boy began to offer him v-bucks to buy costumes, known as “skins”, before asking him to meet in person. The youngster now regularly hides £80 packs of marijuana in his bedroom for the dealer.
“I’m very worried he’s going to start selling the drugs himself,” said Norford, “but what can I do when I’ve only got contact with him once a twice a week? This drug dealer has got a hold of him, buying him the things on the game his parents can’t afford while they play all hours of the night.”
Fortnite has a parental guidance rating of 12. In it, up to 100 online players are dropped onto an island to build forts, find weapons and fight to the death.
Buying 1,000 v-bucks costs about £8. Most purchases in the game cost £7-£16, but Fortnite accounts with the rarest skins have been resold on eBay for thousands of pounds.
By Shingi Mararike, The Times, 21 March 2020