Image: Brian Hirch
M. Spencer Green  /  AP
Brian Hirch, sales manager for Protect A Bed, shows off his company's products at the American Bed Bug Summit last month.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/11/2010 1:01:59 PM ET 2010-10-11T17:01:59

Bedbugs mean big money — whether you’re a victim or an exterminator. The result: an exploding bedbug business that is not likely to die down anytime soon.

Why? Bedbugs are expert hitchhikers, catching rides inside purses, shoes, luggage, clothes and shopping bags, and they can secretly set up camp in new locations, going for up to a year without feeding. They’re showing up in college dorms, nursing homes, day care centers, libraries, funeral homes and even movie theaters.

And they are tough to get rid of.

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“We are on the threshold of a bedbug pandemic, not just in the United States, but around the world," said Missy Henriksen, spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association, an industry trade group. “They can go into clean and dirty properties alike. They are equal opportunity pests.”

That’s good if you’re an exterminator or make stuff that kills bedbugs. Revenues from bedbug extermination hit $258 million last year, up from $98 million 2006, according to the trade group, which represents 7,000 pest control companies. Industry officials expect 2010 revenues to be even bigger.

“It is absolutely out of control right now,” says Andy Carace, owner of Pest End Exterminators, based in Derry, N.H. So far this year, the 28-employee company has had 800 bedbug jobs. Five years ago, it had 50 cases.

“Bedbugs have been identified as the single most difficult pest to treat in our industry,” Henriksen says.

Extermination is a tough job. Pesticides such as DDT once nearly wiped out the bedbug problem 50 years ago, but there is no one single effective way to tackle them today. One method used successfully in Ohio, for instance, might not work on a different bedbug strain in New York, says Henriksen.

Bedbug victims may have to pay hundreds and even thousands of dollars for extermination, since most cases require repeated treatments.

To meet demand, Pest End created a new bedbug division, hired three new employees and spent $15,000 to buy and train a 2-year-old beagle named Rascal who can sniff out bedbugs and their eggs. Carace says a trained dog can find bugs faster and with better accuracy than a technician can.

Image: Barney
Brian Kersey  /  Getty Images
Bedbug-detecting dog Barney signals which container has live bed bugs during a demonstration at the Bed Bug University North American Summit  in Chicago.

Pest End now gets 15 to 30 calls a day from hysterical homeowners wanting to book Rascal at $200 an hour. Nationwide, dogs are used in about 15 percent of bedbug cases.

“A lot of people call and they think they have bedbugs and they don’t,” says Courtney Nicholson, Pest End’s bedbug dog handler. “Some people start scratching themselves, driving themselves crazy. There’s a bit of paranoia.”

Homeowners and hoteliers are not the only ones affected by the creepy crawlies. Last month, Nike Town, Victoria Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch closed the doors of their New York City outlets to deal with bedbug infestations. Used furniture stores, office buildings and Laundromats have been affected. Hospitals, nursing homes and cruise ships are seeking advice on what to do if they’re invaded as well.

“These companies may be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars dealing with bedbugs and managing hysteria,” says Jeff White, research entomologist for BedBugCentral.com, a for-profit online clearinghouse of bedbug information. White says he has seen hotel rooms stripped down to the concrete to purge the pests.

For retailers, the expense extends beyond extermination and includes lost revenues due to business closures and contaminated products that must be discarded. Most insurance policies don’t cover infestations so any costs come straight out of the bottom line. Return policies may change to prevent contamination from returns from bedbug-ridden homes, says White.

The even bigger cost is obvious: What happens to a store’s reputation when customers can’t shake the heebie-jeebies and to come back and spend money?

“We have clients across the board who are concerned about this,” says JoAnn Sullivan, who advises retail clients on the topic for Marsh Risk Consulting. She tells them to treat a bedbug infestation much like they would a food recall.

“You want to have a plan,” she says. “It’s going to get out, so get out in front of the story.”

Consumers can choose from a wide range of products, although it is hard to say what might be effective.

There are $160 FabricTech mattress covers, $10 specialty sprays and $30 luggage liners. For $22, people can buy “interceptors,” which are placed under a bed’s legs to trap the bugs on their way up to a nighttime snack. For $320, a portable heating unit is said to kill off “stowaway” bedbugs hidden in luggage.

Another new gadget, NightWatch Bedbug monitor, is supposed to identify bedbugs by mimicking a sleeping person by releasing heat and carbon dioxide that attracts the bugs. The cost: $422. There are even $30,000 portable insect inferno trailers for sale that fire up the heat to kill bugs in a couch or mattress.

Many makers tout “green” products, promising safer solutions over harmful chemicals, and bedbug experts say it’s tough to know which products are legitimate and which are not.

“There is potential for fraud,” says Jerome Goddard, a Mississippi State medical entomologist. A maker of a “green” herbal spray recently embellished comments Goddard made about the spray’s effectiveness and then implied in advertisements that Goddard endorsed it when he did not.

“Whenever there is a buck to be made, people may stretch the truth,” he says.

Many county or university extension services also offer online advice on how to sort through bedbug products, and PestWorld.org, which is run by the National Pest Management Association, lets people search for reputable pest control companies.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently warned consumers to also check whether the pesticides to be used have been approved by the EPA and are approved for treating bedbugs.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Video: Profiting from the pests

  1. Transcript of: Profiting from the pests

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Finally here tonight during the dinner hour, bedbugs . We have covered their slow and nasty march across this country, every little one of them. They are such a big problem now, invading homes, hotels, college dorms, even stores, movie theaters. It's officially an epidemic, and as you can imagine they are the talk of the bug gathering going on right now in Chicago , a special summit devoted to finding and killing the insidious pests, from which our own Kevin Tibbles reports for us tonight.

    KEVIN TIBBLES reporting: Tiny, blood thirsty and biting their way across America . And these are the people who stop them in their tracks, in Chicago , at the first national bedbug summit, no less, where one can learn all sorts of ways to snuff the critters out. You can freeze them.

    Unidentified Man #1: And that is minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit .

    TIBBLES: Minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit , so if you're a bedbug you are...

    Man #1: Toast or frozen.

    TIBBLES: If you want to toast them, there's the ThermEx heat remediation solution. What are you doing to them?

    Unidentified Man #2: We're frying them.

    TIBBLES: Or the bedbug inferno.

    Mr. COREY WESTRUM (Insect Inferno): Instead of throwing your stuff away, let us heat treat it in our trailer at 160 degrees and kill them little suckers dead.

    TIBBLES: Even special covers to keep them out.

    Unidentified Man #3: Well, this is a mattress encasement for bedbug control.

    TIBBLES: Hang on a minute. Mattress encasement for bedbug control. Once a worry mainly for international travelers, nowadays bedbugs have been found in all 50 states . And each infested American household will spend between two and $4,000 getting rid of them.

    Ms. ANDREA HANCOCK (Mattress Safe): Other parts of the world, they just live with bedbugs . But Americans aren't going to do that.

    TIBBLES: But don't be ashamed if you get bit. It isn't a matter of my own personal cleanliness, whether or not I bring bedbugs into my house or not. They come anyway.

    Mr. PHIL COOPER (Bed Bug Central CEO): The cleanest people in the world get bedbugs . The best hotels in the world get bedbugs . The best office buildings get bedbugs .

    TIBBLES: Don't get embarrassed, get Scooby . And what does Scooby do?

    Offscreen Voice: Good boy!

    TIBBLES: He sniffs out the bedbugs . And once he does you can get even.

    Man #1: They want to get your blood.

    TIBBLES: And you want to freeze them.

    Man #1: I want to freeze them to death.

    TIBBLES: All in a day 's work in the bedbug biz. Kevin Tibbles, NBC News, Chicago .

    WILLIAMS: They're coming for all of us.

Photos: Strangers in the night

loading photos...
  1. Sleeping with the enemy

    Bed bugs are small wingless insects that feed solely upon the blood of warm-blooded humans and animals. They are about 6-10 mm in length. (Harold Harlan, entomologist) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Itchy and scratchy

    A person being repeatedly bitten by bed bugs can be very uncomfortable, develop lots of reddish, itchy welts and often have difficulty sleeping. "The more bugs present, the more bites they inflict, and the worse the problems usually become," says entomologist and bed bug expert Dr. Harold Harlan. "Also, some people can be significantly affected by the social stigma of having a bed bug infestation." (Harold Harlan, entomologist) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Black spots

    "The most obvious sign of bed bugs are small blackish spots -- or fecal spots -- that look either like pepper of dried blood," says Dr. Dini Miller, a Virginia urban pest management specialist and professor. "It's a sign that bed bugs have digested a blood meal and excreted it right out." (Harold Harlan, entomologist) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Poised to strike

    Bed bugs pierce the skin of the host, and inject a fluid which helps them obtain food. This fluid causes the skin to become swollen and itchy. (Harold Harlan, entomologist) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Severe infestation

    This photograph of the underside of a mattress box spring (courtesy of the Scherzinger Pest Control of Cincinnati, Ohio) shows a severe infestation. "The white flaky paper-y things are shed bed bug skin," says technical director and entomologist Bery Pannkuk. (Scherzinger Pest Control ) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Bugged out

    These bed bugs (and fecal smears) were found on a cloth mattress protector. Mattress protectors may not completely protect a bed. An adult bed bug is resilient, often able to survive for months without a meal, so infestations sometimes require multiple exterminations. (Scherzinger Pest Control ) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. They only come out at night...

    The tiny vermin avoid light and attack in the middle of the night. They hide behind headboards or in mattress seams during the day. When checking for bed bugs, experts also suggest looking closely at mattress tags and box springs. (Scherzinger Pest Control ) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Not just on beds

    The name "bed bug" is somewhat of a misnomer because they do not only live in beds. They can also be found along the edge of carpets, on wooden surfaces, on upholstered furniture, and in this case, within an electrical outlet. (Scherzinger Pest Control ) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Making a comeback

    A U.S. Congressional report in 2009 found that bed bug populations increased 500 percent across America in the past few years. (Harold Harlan, entomologist / Harold Harlan, entomologist) Back to slideshow navigation
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