Metro announced yesterday it now is offering rewards of up to $500 to anyone who calls an anonymous tipsters' telephone number to provide information that leads to the conviction of people who are stealing from Metro or vandalizing the transit system's property.

Metro General Manager Richard S. Page said the new program, called "Don't give crime a free ride," is designed as an effort to cut the estimated $6 million to $7 million that Metro lost last year through bus and subway fare evasion, employe theft, burglaries of farecard machines and the subsequent repairs of damaged machines.

"We are serious about finding ways of stemming that loss of revenue," which now amounts to nearly 5 percent of the transit system's total fare income, Page said.

Under the new plan, anyone who witnesses someone cheating Metro or committing some other type of offense can call the toll-free number--800-732-7463--and anonymously disclose details of the crime.

Metro is operating the tipsters' program through a California-based operation called WeTip, which over the last 11 years has taken information about a variety of crimes that it says has led to 4,620 arrests and 1,793 convictions. WeTip operates similar services for 314 cities, other transit systems, schools, hospitals and corporations. Metro will pay WeTip $7,000 annually to take the calls.

Metro police chief Angus MacLean said the service "can give a citizen an opportunity to do their community a service. We definitely think it's worth it," in part because Metro officials think the program's existence might act as a deterrent to someone contemplating cheating Metro.

The rewards will range from $25 to $500 depending on the value of the information provided by the tipster and the severity of the crime observed.

Metro officials displayed a table full of hardware they said had been used to break into subway farecard machines, including a hatchet, a crowbar, axes, a large bolt cutter and a sledgehammer. In addition, they exhibited a handful of the 500 cut-in-half dollar bills they said Metrobus riders drop in fare boxes each day to avoid full fares.