The Citizens Utility Board says there has been six times the number of complaints about unregulated natural gas suppliers so far this year.
The watchdog group says recent rate increases by regulated utilities including People's Gas, Nicor Gas and North Shore Gas are prompting area consumers to look for better deals.
CUB says many of those unregulated plans did not really save consumers money.
CUB recommended asking these five questions before signing up for any offer:
1. How does the rate compare with current utility rates? The utilities' rates fluctuate monthly, and as of April 1 Nicor Gas is charging 68 cents per therm, North Shore Gas is charging $1.21 a therm, and Peoples Gas $1.19 a therm. CUB warned consumers that alternative offers that look good now compared with high utility rates could turn out to be money-losers in the long run.
2. Does the offer change? Find out if the rate is "variable," meaning it changes on a monthly basis, or "fixed," meaning it is set for the length of the term.
3. Is the rate "introductory" or "promotional"? A seemingly low initial rate may rise significantly after the first month or few months. Find out how long a promotional rate lasts, and what the rate rises to after that period.
4. Is a monthly fee attached to the rate? Make sure to ask if there are any fees attached to the plan, and factor in how that impacts the per-therm rate.
5. Is there an exit fee? Many suppliers charge customers an "early termination" or "exit" fee if they want to get out of the offer before the contract is up. Under state law, gas suppliers are not allowed to charge an exit fee of more than $50.
The watchdog group urged consumers to visit its website, www.CitizensUtilityBoard.org, to view fact sheets that allow Peoples, North Shore, and Nicor customers to make apples-to-apples comparisons between utility prices and offers by alternative gas suppliers.
Consumers with questions or complaints can call CUB's toll-free hotline, 1-800-669-5556.