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Don't Let the Bedbug Charlatans Bite

Scammers are coming out of the woodwork

Bedbug bites are itchy and annoying. But they can bring on a more painful bite: high-priced fake treatments, which are multiplying as the media report growing numbers of infestations by the insects.

It's best to ignore the ionic, ultrasonic or electromagnetic gizmos pitched on TV or the Internet. "I have never seen any evidence that any of them work," says Richard Pollack, a research entomologist who has been studying bedbugs for two decades.

And think twice before buying aerosol "bug bombs" or other off-the-shelf insecticides. "Their risk is greater to yourself than the bedbugs," Pollack says. "This is not a do-it-yourself job."

Before accepting a pitch from a self-proclaimed pest control professional, be aware that the bedbug epidemic has brought scammers out of the woodwork.

"I don't want to say there are a lot of fly-by-nights, but the atmosphere is certainly ripe for scams," says Samuel Soto, a retired police detective sergeant who now runs a New York pest control business, First Rate Solutions.

Some tips if you're worried about bedbugs:

  • A professional inspection and treatment can cost from $200 to more than $6,000, depending on the type of dwelling, location and extent of infestation. So before writing a check, make sure you really have bedbugs. A fact sheet issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency contains photos and a wealth of other useful information. For a $20 fee, Pollack provides identification of mailed specimens or images uploaded to his website. "Many people find a bug on their bed and assume it's a bedbug when it's actually a carpet beetle or something else," he says."

  • If you really have bedbugs, which cause welts but are not known to carry disease, you want an exterminator with proven experience, says Missy Henriksen of the National Pest Management Association, whose website offers a ZIP code search for local pros with NPMA certification. Ask to see a government-issued license and "work only with companies that can document previous bedbug experience," she advises. "Bedbugs are the single most difficult pest to properly eliminate."

  • Seek referrals and treat pest control specialists as you would other contractors. "Have three or four visit you," suggests Pollack, "and get written estimates that include an integrated pest management plan that says exactly what they will do"—what products they will use, how frequently, the cost and the kind of warranty, if any. Eradication may require several treatments, but you should suspect a scam "if someone says they need to come back every month," he adds.

  • Before any treatment is applied, the technician should produce evidence of infestation. That may mean ripping open your mattress or box spring, applying glue traps near baseboards or thoroughly moving and inspecting furniture. "You don't want a guy to just come in and start spraying," says Pollack. Specially trained dogs may be used to sniff out bedbugs, but to ensure it's not some huckster's mutt, ask to see its National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association certification. Reputable canine inspections cost about $350, says Soto.

  • If an insecticide treatment is used—and Pollack recommends a "cocktail" of several types—ask to see the product labels, and also ask for the Material Safety Data Sheet for each product. It may be too technical to understand, but "a good pest control company will hand you copies," whereas fly-by-nights likely won't have this material on hand. Because sprays that work in one area of the country may not be effective elsewhere, says Henriksen, some experts use heat, steam or freezing temperatures against bedbugs. If this is done, expect to see specialized equipment, not a device resembling a handheld hair dryer.

  • Ask about follow-up. With proper treatment, Pollack says, you should see a "dramatic reduction" within a week or so. "Many professionals won't guarantee eradication, but good ones will often come back several times at no charge if there's still a problem."

Sid Kirchheimer is the author of  Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).

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