Renting mailing lists has long been the way to reach potential customers. But as direct marketers know, there are drawbacks to renting: you don't know exactly what you're getting, and you get only one shot at the list. Now you can take prospecting into your own hands with the help of some powerful new personal-computer programs.

MarketPlace Business, one of the most notable entries, contains on compact disc information on more than 7 million U.S. companies, culled from Dun & Bradstreet's national database of businesses. The Macintosh-based program allows marketers to target prospects based on location, type of business by SIC code (up to eight digits), annual sales, number of employees, and telephone area code.

What's more, MarketPlace Business lets you check out the quality of a list before you buy it. And once you pay for the list (the program deducts credits from the user's prepaid metered account), you can use the names repeatedly throughout the year. The program is well suited for repeat mailings to CEOs of small businesses. (Most companies in the database have fewer than 25 employees.) Although it is not designed to single out various titles within a company, it does allow you to export lists to your own database so you can manipulate the data.

While no list provider promises 100% deliverability, the MarketPlace Business database is reportedly better than 90% accurate, and the company offers a 60-day refund guarantee.

MarketPlace Business might not replace your list broker -- but at a cost as low as 6¢ to 10¢ a name for unlimited usage, and considering the savings in time, perhaps it should. The program sells for $1,095, which includes four CD updates per year and 3,000 starter "credits," or names. The yearly renewal fee is $495; additional credits cost $500 for 5,000 names. Call MarketPlace Information at 617-894-4100. -- Susan Greco