Savers are being pummelled by falling interest rates and the renewal of the Government's funding for lending scheme for banks is sure to keep rates depressed.

The squeeze has provided a major boost for social or peer-to-peer (P2P) lending, the online community where savers lend to borrowers, the bank is cut out, and both sides pick up a better rate.

So if you are disgruntled with the rates on offer from conventional accounts, and the strings attached, could you improve your returns by applying the ebay principle to your savings?

This week Zopa, the market leader, launched a new Safeguard tool to add security to the promise of better savings rates.

"Zopa savers cut out banks and building societies and earn 5% on their savings by lending their money directly to other responsible people," the lender says.

"Despite Zopa's default rate being extremely low – 0.8% on all money lent since launch – the Zopa Safeguard is now available to make up all the money owed from a borrower, including the interest, in the rare instance they are unable to pay back their loan." It operates in the same way as the Provision Fund set up by smaller rival Ratesetter as a partial safety net.

Zopa said its lending directly to UK consumers had now passed £300 million, with "a 200% uplift in savers signing up to Zopa in 2013".

Giles Andrews, chief executive, said: "With the financial sector experiencing a challenging time, this signals an exciting opportunity for us and future for the peer-to-peer industry."

The sector achieved serious recognition last year when the Government said it would channel £100m to small businesses through alternative lending channels, including P2P lenders, hoping to bypass the mainstream banks which were reluctant to lend to small business.

Zopa offers three "markets" for savers to choose from, A*,A or B, ranked by the credit quality of the person you will lend to.

"When deciding which market to offer in, bear in mind that lending to more creditworthy borrowers has a lower risk level, but that you can get potentially higher returns by lending to B market borrowers," Zopa says.

A typical B borrower is described as someone who "lives in a spacious flat in an ultra-trendy housing complex in the centre of Manchester - she bought the apartment six years ago, and has a 25-year mortgage which she is gradually paying off - has two credit cards which she uses fairly regularly, though she puts most purchases on her debit card - she always pays her bills on time and ensures she's on the electoral roll".

It says average rates paid out, after Zopa's fee, in the last six months were 5.2% for A-plus, 5.7% for A, and 7.1% for B. It compares its own rates with the three-year bond rate from Halifax at 2.25% and the 2% easy access without bonus from Nationwide.

Ratesetter quotes a three-year rate of 4.3%. It says it is "unique in peer-to-peer lending as the only operator to have returned every penny of capital and interest to every single lender". Its Provision Fund does not guarantee protection, like the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, but it has so far covered every claim made on it.

The P2P sites only accept around 12 in every 100 loan applicants, which means that their default rate is only around 1%.

The sector will from next April be fully regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority for the first time, which might mean higher costs and lower rates.

In the meantime, savers must take their chance with the in-house protection schemes.