Fraudsters claiming to be from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service are charging would-be overseas students £850 each supposedly to fix university places, visas and jobs, The Times Higher has learnt.
Spam emails ask prospective overseas students: "Would you like to live, study and work in the United Kingdom? This is your only chance to achieve you (sic) goal without hassles."
Using a series of authentic looking email addresses - including email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org - and using the name of Tony Higgins, the late Ucas chief executive, the fraudsters offer to help applicants find university places and arrange visas and part-time jobs.
Applicants who respond to the emails are told to transfer £850 through the Western Union international money transfer service.
Ucas said this week that its solicitors had called in the fraud squad and had alerted the British Council about the scam.
Anthony McClaran, chief executive, said: "The emails have not originated from Ucas, and we would strongly advise anyone not to send money to this organisation. The cost to apply through Ucas is £5 for one application or £15 for up to six, not the extortionate charge of £850.
"We are working with all the authorities to put a stop to it as soon as possible. We would urge anyone who has received such an email to contact us immediately."
It is unclear how widely the spam email has been circulated, but Ucas said it had received several inquiries. The email reads: "Ucas is pleased to announce a new programme of consultancy relating to... progression to higher education for overseas students who desire to live, study and work in the UK.
"Once admission is granted, all immigration and accommodation problems would be taken care of by Ucas, and also part-time job opportunities shall be provided."
It gives a deadline for applications of January 31, two weeks after the official Ucas deadline of January 15.
Students who respond to the initial email, from a "Martin Clarke" who describes himself as Ucas "director of admission", are sent an acknowledgement. This provides an application form, purporting to be from M.A. Higgins, the former Ucas chief executive who died last year.
It asks applicants to transfer the fee to a "James Cole" through Western Union. It says: "Upon provision of all the above prerequisites, we will send your application to universities and/or colleges for possible admission."
One caller to the telephone number given in the emails (an 07040 number) was told they were speaking to "James Cole", who gave his address at a business park in Aintree, Liverpool.
This is in fact the address of the Liverpool offices of National Lottery operator Camelot, which said that it had no James Cole based there.
No one replied from the fake Ucas email addresses when contacted by The Times Higher .
A spokeswoman at Western Union's US headquarters said the company would fully cooperate with any police investigation. She said she would pass information provided by The Times Higher to its security department, adding: "Because money is transferred person to person, we do not recommend that people transfer money through us to people they do not know."