Bogus applications for places on higher education courses in the UK are spiralling out of control, anti-fraud watchdogs have warned.
The number of "suspect" applications detected by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service verification unit almost tripled last year compared with 2004, while the number of applications that were cancelled because of missing or forged documents rose nearly 50 per cent.
Figures from the Ucas "hunter" fraud detection database show that 1,136 applications had to be cancelled in 2005 because prospective students had provided false or misleading information or were unwilling or unable to back up claims with genuine documentation. Almost the same number again were deemed too suspect to be processed.
In 2004, 758 applications were cancelled and about 335 were rejected as suspect. Just 124 applications were cancelled in 2000.
Ucas this week said that although improved detection rates partly explained the trend, the increasing number of fraudulent applications "continues to give cause for concern".
Anti-fraud measures are in danger of being swamped by the high number of bogus applications. Ucas estimates that the total number of fraudulent applications could be double the amount that it has managed to identify.
The majority of bogus applications come from overseas, and well over half of these are from Nigeria. Last year, 7,058 applications were received from Nigeria - 177 more than from China. Of these, 1,172 were accepted - nearly 70 per cent more than in 2004.
A Ucas spokesman said that well over 1,000 applications from Nigeria that had been deemed suspect in the 2005 cycle bore "all the hallmarks of organised fraud".
He added: "In all but a few cases investigated, applicants failed to respond to our inquiries. Nearly all of them were online applications."
The Nigerian problem is similar to an unprecedented increase in fraudulent applications from China in the previous year, when Ucas cancelled 200 bogus applications submitted from London, and alerted institutions to a further 500 suspicious Chinese applications from 40 addresses in the UK.
Chas Lowe, co-ordinator of the Ucas verification unit, said: "There is a lot more fraud going on than we can deal with or know about."
He added: "The biggest difficulty is the sheer number of fraudulent applications we are detecting. A suspect application can be cancelled only after evidence has been collected and fraud has been proved, and this involves a full and time-consuming investigation. We have robust procedures in place, but the problem is on the increase."
The verification unit, which has been offering a free service to institutions since 1996, has taken on extra staff to combat the growth in fraud.
Mr Lowe said: "We are catching more fraudsters and the sector is becoming more aware of the problem. But unscrupulous people continue to try to use us as a vehicle for illegal entry to the UK."
Despite the concerns, some anti-fraud measures being considered by the Home Office have been criticised by the National Union of Students.
The NUS said proposals to introduce "bonds" of up to £400 for students from some "high-risk" countries to guarantee their application would "potentially discriminate against students on the basis of their country of origin".
But Mr Lowe said that the bonds would help alleviate fraud and safeguard the position of institutions. "Anything that helps ensure an application is genuine has got to be welcomed," he added.