You may have heard the sales pitch: Alternative gas companies offer you lower rates than you get from the major companies, if you switch your service.

The state calls these businesses "gas choice" companies. They're also called "third party suppliers." Whatever you call them, more than 1/2 million people in Michigan have signed on the dotted line and made the switch.

However, during this bitter cold winter some customers came to regret that decision.

"Never ever, never ever, do I have this kind of situation in my life," said Lucyna Kopylowski, of Dearborn Heights.

What kind of protection do consumers have when they switch gas companies? Why did the rates spike so high from one month to the next? The Ruth to the Rescue consumer unit has been looking into those questions over the past few weeks.

Energy bills spike!

About a dozen Local 4 viewers have written or called Ruth to the Rescue in the last month complaining about energy bills that, in some cases, doubled in just one month.

"I was shocked when I got this bill recently," said Kopylowski. "I just called (my daughter) and I said, 'Anna, I can't believe it. My bill is almost $800.'"

The mother and daughter called Santana Energy Services to find out how the bill could change so drastically, so suddenly.

"Because businessmen buy commodities at high prices and my mom was on a variable rate," said Anna Stelmasiewicz.

Stelmasiewicz told Ruth to the Rescue that was the explanation she received.

In Lincoln Park, Christine Borlin Kanta was going through a similar experience. She chose Lakeshore Energy. Her rate per unit almost doubled on her March bill.

"I think something has to be done about these companies coming into our state," said Borlin Kanta. "I tried to call 'em and evidently a lot of other people were trying to call them, too, because you couldn't get through on the phones."

When she did get through, she canceled her service.

What caused the spike?

Local 4 Consumer Expert Ruth Spencer recently spoke with the Victor Howard, vice president of Retail Choice for Lakeshore Energy Services, about the price increase.

"As you know, we just came off a historic cold winter," he said. "Matter of fact, during this time period we saw supply cost increase by more than 200 percent, which we absorbed quite a bit of that ourselves."

However, there's more to this equation than the laws of supply and demand. When you switch to an alternative supplier, you should sign a contract that spells out the details of the agreement. It may be for a fixed rate or the rate may be variable.

Melanie Duquesnel, CEO of the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan, said knowing the difference is critical.

"Personally, I'm not a gambler, so variable rates for me are not what I prefer. I like knowing what my bills are going to be month-to-month," she said.

Is there any state regulation?

Given the amount of complaints Ruth to the Rescue received, Ruth went to the Michigan Public Service Commission to see what's happening at the state level.

"Last year, we had a record number of gas choice customers in Michigan, many of whom were very, very happy," said spokeswoman Judy Palnau.

However, she admitted, this winter the commission also had been receiving numerous complaints.

Ruth brought her viewer stories of bills that had doubled in one month.