A GROWING online movement is taking advantage of widespread disillusionment among savers and borrowers, offering them the chance to cut out the banks and do business with one another instead.

Websites like Zopa and Funding Circle are fast becoming a threat to the scandal-hit banking sector by allowing consumers and even businesses to borrow from a pool of money contributed by members of the public.

The concept, known as social or peer-to-peer (P2P) lending, is finding favour with Scots on both sides of the deal – borrowers are offered more competitive loans than through traditional sources, while those who play banker and lend to their peers are promised interest well above what they would earn in a savings account.

According to the analyst Defaqto, the average savings rate has only just crept back up to positive territory (1.25%) following the financial crash, considerably below the returns of 7% or 8% often advertised by social lending sites.

A collective approach to investment could even provide a last hope for small businesses, starved of loans from credit-squeezed banks.

A Scottish brewer has funded five new bars and a £7 million eco-plant thanks to a legion of "fanvestors" across the world. Brewdog launched a unique Equity for Punks scheme last year, encouraging beer lovers to buy into the company for as little as £95.

It generated more than £2m with over 8000 participating in the online share offer, including investors from New Zealand and south-east Asia.

The internet age has allowed this "crowd funding" approach to flourish, particularly for community or niche enterprises that can rally enthusiastic customers, rather than their bank managers, into raising money.

James Watt, co-founder of Brewdog, said the firm is rewarding loyal investors with discounts in their bars and exclusive access to new products.

"We reached our target early solely down to the passion our fans have for us and craft beer. We were astounded by the commitment beer fans from around the world showed."

Glasgow Chamber of Commerce has unveiled plans for its first seminar on the issue next month, entitled Crowdfund Your Way to Growth.

Meanwhile, peer-to-peer is going from strength to strength. Lending on the three main websites in this field topped £250m last month, with Zopa holding the lion's share of the market.

The site has seen lending reach £50m in the past eight months alone, surpassing the £200m mark in mid-May.

Personal loans passing through the site still only account for 2% of the overall market but some com- mentators wonder whether Zopa, dubbed the eBay of banking, could enjoy a growth story to rival the internet's biggest names.

Andrew Hagger, spokesman for the personal finance site Moneynet, said: "The more established this market becomes, the more confidence consumers will have.

"If providers continue to keep rates competitive and bad-debt levels at current low levels, the peer-to-peer industry could soon play a much bigger role in the UK personal finance market."

The biggest caveat to these sites is that they're not risk- free. Savers are not covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, a safety net for the banks which covers up to £85,000 kept in any one institution.

There is a chance, albeit very small, that a borrower could default, leaving their lender out of pocket – Zopa has admitted its default rate rose from 0.76% to 0.88% in just over a year.

To protect savers' cash, the main P2P sites spread money across a range of borrowers and allow lenders to choose which risk band they want to lend to, with varying returns on offer.

The sites also carry out extremely strict credit checks, meaning they turn away many, if not most prospective borrowers. Those with a flawed credit history need not apply, as the sites strive to keep that all-important default rate low.

Critics also argue that real (after-inflation) returns of 5.5% from Zopa this year are not as impressive as the blockbuster figures often bandied about by P2P advocates.

However, Mr Hagger says a one-year bond with another P2P site – Ratesetter – would pay 4.8% for 12 months, at least 1.35% higher than you can get from a bank or building society right now.

He adds: "If you're thinking of investing via P2P lending, choose an established provider such as Zopa or Ratesetter.

"Start off with an initial deposit to see how the system works and the level of return you actually receive. When you feel more confident and happy with the way it works, you may wish to invest more.

"However, bear in mind that even though stringent measures are in place, you don't have a cast-iron guarantee your money will be safe."

He advises using these sites as part of a wider savings portfolio, with money in instant access and long-term accounts, as well as a fully topped-up ISA.