By Jill Harmacinski
---- — Francheska Vega-Collazo lives in Morovis, Puerto Rico, and has never been to Massachusetts or the continental United States.
So she was surprised to find out that her Social Security number was used to rent apartments in Methuen, Lawrence and Chelsea.
The woman who rented them in Vega-Collazo’s name identified herself as Franchezka Vega, 24 — spelling her first name with a “z” instead of an ‘‘s” and dropping the second half of the hyphenated last name.
“Vega” is now in federal custody facing charges of identity theft and misuse of a Social Security number.
Authorities don’t know who she really is — she is identified in federal court records as a “Jane Doe.”
But they think they know what she was up to.
In what has become an all too familiar pattern, authorities say, the apartments were likely rented using stolen identification for purposes of drug trafficking.
While identity theft is widespread across the country, the theft or sale of Puerto Rican birth certificates, Social security numbers and other identification is soaring.
Because Puerto Ricans are American citizens, such identification can be used to more easily obtain entry to the United States and to obtain driver’s licenses, welfare benefits, tax refunds, mortgages and more.
Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said his department has received many identity theft complaints from about stolen identities from people living in Puerto Rico.
“They are people they had never even ventured here to Lawrence,” said Romero. “It’s not surprising. There’s been incidents before like this.”
One notable case involved Carmen Beltre, 48, formerly of Lawrence, an alleged “identity broker” who sold Puerto Rican birth certificates and the corresponding U.S. Social Security numbers.
In January 2012, Beltre was named among 49 other people in an identity fraud scheme that spanned 15 states and Puerto Rico.
U.S. marshals returned Beltre to Puerto Rico to face trial in federal court there.
During a traffic stop in June 2011 by Lawrence police, Beltre’s pocketbook was found to contain “suspicious” lists of names and Social Security numbers, plus immigration and tax paperwork. The numbers in her possession were issued to residents of Puerto Rico, New York, New Jersey and Illinois.
The charges against “Vega,” or Jane Doe, stem from an ICE investigation of a man suspected of drug trafficking and illegal re-entry to the United States, according to an affidavit by Special Agent Sean Rafferty of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Rafferty said he learned an apartment at 142 Pleasant St., Methuen, was rented by Vega using the stolen identity. Management at the apartment complex told Rafferty that information on Vega’s rental application was “suspicious.”
Vega listed her employment on the application as a designer for a company on Broadway in Lawrence, claiming she made $1,250 weekly. She said she had worked there for two years and six months, according to the application last September.
There is an Internet listing for the company listed by Vega, but its voice mailbox was full and not accepting messages late this week.
Rafferty said that when he dug deeper he found Vega was using a fake Massachusetts driver’s license.
Rafferty contacted Vega-Collazo in Puerto Rico to ask about her stolen identity.
“Vega-Collazo stated she had not given anyone permission to use her identity or sold her identity,” Rafferty said in the affidavit.
She told the ICE agent that about a year earlier she received a letter and an unsolicited check from the Internal Revenue Service. She realized then that someone had stolen her identity and returned the check. She also put a hold on her credit as someone was trying to obtain credit cards and a mortgage in her name, Rafferty wrote.
In addition to the apartment on Pleasant Street in Methuen, Rafferty said, that “Vega” also rented apartments at 51 Osgood Drive, Methuen; 10 Diamond St., Lawrence; and 100 Stockton St., Chelsea.
He said he couldn’t be certain why the apartments were rented. But based on “my experience and training regarding the investigation of illegal aliens and drug trafficking, individuals sometimes act as facilitators of drug trafficking by others by taking out leases and utility contracts in false identities,” Rafferty wrote.
“The facilitators then (allow) the drug traffickers to use the locations without actually having any documentation tying them to the apartments, thereby helping the drug traffickers in their effort to remain anonymous,” he added.
He said the drug traffickers often use multiple apartments rented by different people, some to store drugs and cash, others to conduct drug deals or to live in.
The investigation into the alleged scheme is continuing.
Vega is due back in court on Monday. Her attorney, Scott Gleason of Haverhill, declined comment for this story.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screen name EagleTribJill.