One or two deadbeat customers can sink a company, but it's hard to find time to search all the appropriate records for omens of trouble. Fortunately, though, in this age of expanding databases, you may not need to travel to remote outposts to determine if your would-be customers are having problems. At a fairly reasonable price, a service by Prentice Hall can give you information about such warning signs as tax liens or court judgments instantly.

Prentice Hall OnLine, provided by Prentice Hall Legal & Financial Services (which was recently merged with Information America), lets businesses use modems to search more than 250 million public records in 35 states for credit and tax information on businesses and their owners. You can call up such records as bankruptcies, notices of default, and Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) filings. Within the UCC file, you can get information about loans (the name of the lender, the name of the borrower, the date of the loan, and current status). You can also cross-reference categories of data.

At $300 a quarter -- up to 60 searches' worth -- the basic service isn't cheap. But for companies that are trying to assess the creditworthiness of customers they don't know, it may be money well spent.

For more information, call 800-333-0431.