As the government gears up to sell its battered inventory of hundreds of failed savings and loan institutions, officials overseeing the cleanup said yesterday they plan to hire a special cadre of employees to watch for fraud and kickbacks.

The Resolution Trust Corp., the agency supervising the rescue, will rely on thousands of private contractors for a wide variety of services in the next several years, from filing lawsuits to running auctions. Without vigorous oversight, officials fear a reprise of the sort of looting that helped bring down the thrift industry.

Officials said they plan to hire 20 to 30 "contractor cops" as an early warning system for other law enforcement agencies. The RTC inspector general expects his staff of auditors and investigators to number 150 by end of the year.

"It looks to us like the opportunities for fraud are going to be enormous," said RTC Inspector General John Adair.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see how two people could get together to rip us off," said agency Director David Cooke.

He and others at the RTC are concerned that apartment managers will siphon off rents, for example, or that appraisers will low-ball estimates to help friends interested in bidding on RTC real estate. The contractor cops will have to see that greens fees are properly collected from government-owned golf courses and that specialists hired by the government to unsnarl bad real estate deals are not working in collusion with developers who have defaulted on their commercial loans.

The surveillance group will be "pro-active," Cooke said. The new employees, working from the agency's 18 offices around the country, will try to spot trends in fraud schemes so the RTC can adjust its practices to prevent them.

The unit will be assembled and overseen by a new assistant RTC director, who will be hired in the coming weeks.

"We are looking for people who have the pulse of the community," explained Salvatore Martoche, a former U.S. attorney and a top thrift regulator now serving as a RTC consultant in setting up the surveillance operation. Martoche said the RTC wants to hire people in each region who are familiar with the local real estate and financial scene.

RTC officials are especially sensitive to the possibility of corruption, since their agency exists in part because of the criminal activity of some thrift operators who ran their institutions into the ground. In addition, the first phase of the cleanup -- the 1988 government-assisted sales of several hundred failed thrifts -- has been widely criticized as providing sweetheart deals for the buyers.

The RTC has billions of dollars worth of thrift assets to sell for whatever it can get -- from junk bonds to foreclosed real estate and commercial loans gone bad. The agency is hiring contractors around the country to do the selling and to manage the assets until they are disposed of.

It signed a $41 million asset-management contract yesterday with J.E. Robert Co. of Alexandria, which is to manage and sell off assets with a value of $2.4 billion from University Federal Savings in Houston.

The RTC also signed its first contract to manage a single large real estate project yesterday, picking Lowe Enterprises of Los Angeles to manage the Banning-Lewis Ranch in Colorado Springs, Colo., a 25,000-acre project that is the largest tract owned by the RTC.

Other potential contractors are flocking to the RTC. Officials said 24,624 individuals and firms have registered to bid on agency business, and new registrations are coming in at a rate of 1,000 to 1,200 a week.

A separate RTC investigative group looks at the past activities of thrift principals. The fraud investigations unit, eventually expected to have 200 to 300 employees, goes in when a thrift is shut down to look for ways the government can sue to recover money from lawyers, accountants, appraisers, officers or directors. Staff writer Jerry Knight contributed to this report.