... Letting agents raided more than £1m from tenants' deposit schemes last year, a BBC investigation can reveal.

Fourteen letting agents were prosecuted in the UK in 2016 for helping themselves to tenants' cash.

Despite the Tenancy Deposit Scheme being introduced to protect tenants' money, deposits can still be held in a bank account controlled by the landlord or agent.

Property expert Ajay Jagota said this is the sector's "dirty little secret".

Since 2007, landlords and their agents have had a legal requirement to put every tenant's deposit in a government-backed scheme, such as the Tenancy Deposit Scheme.

But deposit money can either be held in a custodial account run by the scheme, or it can be held in a bank account, which the landlord or letting agent can access at any time.

Letting agency Premier Property Management of Truro, based in Cornwall, owes more than £35,000 to clients.

Hannah Sinfield, a former tenant, has been waiting five months for the £775 she is owed.

She has had to put the deposit for her new flat on a credit card and the interest is mounting up.

"I'm just fed up with it now really," she said. "I'm just sick of the lies."

The company, run by Ann Treneer from Newquay, even owes money to landlords.

Steve and Lorraine Emery-Wright are owed more than £4,200 after The Property Ombudsman ruled in their favour.

Mr Emery-Wright, who has been waiting 18 months for the money, said: "She would avoid us, she would tell us intentional lies: 'I've paid you', and no pay has gone in.

"She would send us cheques and the cheques would be cancelled."

BBC Inside Out South West has spoken to nine tenants and seven landlords who are collectively owed almost £35,000.

Three workmen are owed £1,300, and £35,000 awarded by the courts to clients has also not been paid.

In addition, an organisation which insures tenants deposits has so far paid out £36,000 to 36 people who all failed to get theirs back from Ms Treneer.

She has apologised and said the money is safe in a ring-fenced account. She said she has not been well and promised to pay the money back - but it has not yet been returned to her clients.

She is being investigated by Trading Standards.

Mr Jagota said: "An average small independent agent would probably be managing about 200 properties which would equate to £300,000 in tenancy deposits.

"We think this is the sector's dirty little secret where they can dip into this account when they see fit."

He said there is "no need" to take cash deposits and properties should be insured against careless tenants.

Fourteen letting agents were convicted of stealing £1,018,100 of deposits in 2016:

            January, £5,000, Manchester

            February, £225,000, Devon

            April, £7,750, London

            April, £27,000, London

            May, £400,000, East Midlands

            May, £1,430, Portsmouth

            May, £7,000, Glasgow

            June, £1,430, Hampshire

            June, £220,000, Hertfordshire

            July, £15,000, Swansea

            August, £500, East Ayrshire

            October, £21,000, Essex

            October, £157,000, Devon

MP Oliver Colvile, who has campaigned for tenants' rights, said: "I think this is appalling and clearly there needs some action to be taken on all of this."

The full investigation will be on Inside Out South West on BBC One on Monday 13 February at 19:30 BST and on the iPlayer for 30 days thereafter.

[BBC News on-line, Cornwall, 13 February 2017]