The days of knowing the family who runs the only general store in town are long gone. Not only are there competing stores in the community that carry similar products, but there are hundreds, even thousands of comparable stores online. It's hard to trust unknown companies when hiring to get work done or to purchase needed supplies or products, but before you limit your field of candidates, learn to check a company's references.
Ask the company directly for a list of references. The list depends on the type of business you plan to conduct with the company. For instance, are you a customer looking to purchase something? Will you extend credit to them? Or do you consider them as a potential employer?
Make sure to obtain more than two references on the list. Although it's common to list only two, that scenario only works if both responses are the same. If one reference gives a glowing review of the company and the other reference is horrible, it's going to take at least one more reference to sort out which reference is more accurate to better check the company's reliability.
Consider any professional designations and memberships, such as belonging to the Better Business Bureau, and check to ensure the company remains in good standing. Ask for a thorough description of any complaints and check how the company resolved them.
Look at the company's website as well as the websites of the references. Online resources like Domain Tools' Whois Lookup provide details about the date of origination of a domain name and who created it. Don't be fooled by professional looking websites. With templates readily available for a small fee, even scam artists can put up a good façade on the Internet, so check websites carefully.
Accept only references with legitimate business email addresses, not generic Web emails such as Yahoo or Gmail accounts. The company should also have a verifiable business address and a main phone number that you can call and speak with the receptionist first, before you transfer to the actual reference person.