Students looking for digs have been warned about a scam in which they are fleeced before they see a property.
The National Union of Students (NUS) says a growing number of students have been taken in by adverts posted on websites where fake landlords demand a holding deposit. Students pay up, but the letting never materialises and they lose their money.
The problem has been compounded by the high number seeking private accommodation, pushing many students on to unregulated websites.
The NUS said: "The fraudulent landlords who post the adverts require prospective tenants to transfer money as holding deposits without visiting the property – or to prove they have money in order to rent by transferring money to a friend and sending proof.
"Fraudulent adverts most often appear on free advertising websites as there is no cost to advertise the fake property. The easiest way to avoid being victim to these scammers is to use your common sense – if the price or location looks too good, then it probably is."
That, though, does not always work with students who are unfamiliar with the area surrounding the university, particularly overseas students, according to Pete Mercer, vice-president of the NUS in charge of welfare.
"They may not realise that, say, £70 a week for a property in a prime area like Russell Square in London is unbelievable. They pay a holding deposit and lose their deposits straight away."
The advice is simple: do not pay a holding deposit, rent or any money without visiting a property. The NUS had already reported a rise in complaints from students who are forced to live in sub-standard accommodation or are unable to get their deposits back at the end of their tenancy.
Universities have lists of recognised landlords and are prepared to remove any who behave unscrupulously.
But The Independent discovered several cases where students have found it almost impossible to get basic improvements made or to contact landlords to get their deposits back.
"He ignored our phone calls. At first he would make excuses, eventually he would stop answering to us," said Stephen Kenwright, 23, who rented with friends while a student at Sheffield Hallam University. "We borrowed phones from friends and rang. He answered and then put the phone down when he realised who was calling."
According to Mr Mercer, one of the first things students should check is that the money is held in a recognised tenancy deposit protection scheme. "Sometimes, landlords will say they have put it in one when they haven't."
Mohammed al-Talib, a fourth-year medical student at University College London, has still not received his deposit from his second year.
"I can't believe that so often students are taken advantage of and the mechanisms in place to protect them consistently fail to do so," he said.
Case study: Landlord stole £800 deposit
Stephen Kenwright, 23, studied English at Sheffield Hallam University
In 2010 I moved out of a house in Sheffield. It had looked adequate. Once we moved in it was much dirtier than when we had first seen it, and mould was beginning to develop. The heating did not work; it took upwards of 10 phone calls to the landlord before he arranged for it to be fixed. By then every wall on the house's ground floor was covered in mould.
[After we moved out and wanted to recover our deposits,] myself and my housemate called him from four different mobile phones; each time he would hang up. On the sixth attempt he was furious. The landlord claimed he had drafted in "industrial strength" cleaners, at a cost of exactly £800: the combined value of our bonds. We asked him for a receipt, at which point he put the phone down. When our lead tenant contacted the University he was informed that the bond money was never actually entered into a bond.
- More about: