Striding through Melbourne’s courthouse in a skintight black dress and designer sunglasses, Jasmine Vella-Arpaci could have been mistaken for many of the city’s bright and ambitious young professionals.
But on the morning of December 16, Ms Vella-Arpaci, a 24-year-old hairdresser and mother, did not catch a breath of fresh air before returning to her desk at one of the many law firms or law firms on nearby William Street in Melbourne.
Instead, she went to Victoria County Court, her Kardashian-esque attire and body language unremarkable amid the high-end environment, where she was to be convicted for her central role in a multimillion-dollar fraud syndicate that stretched from Hong Kong to the US , who are preying on some of Australia’s most vulnerable people.
On this sunny December morning, the trial that began with Ms Vella-Arpaci’s arrest in April 2019 at Melbourne Airport on her return from cosmetic surgery in Turkey was to end with the deceptively confident young woman staring imploringly at Judge Fiona Todd , her Hands folded in her lap and the reality sinks in that she will be absent for at least four of her child’s most formative years.
What prompted her to play a leading role in stealing more than $3 million in pensions from 20 victims, some of whom were in their late 80s and early 90s, aged 19 to 21, was not specifically stated in court.
Her Defense Council had previously argued that Ms Vella-Arpaci, whose humble upbringing included an education at Rose Hill Secondary College in Melbourne’s north-west suburbs, did not live a luxurious existence with the proceeds of her crimes – an argument which Judge Todd accepted.
Her child’s father, who has now been imprisoned for a considerable time, was a chronic gambler who relied on Ms. Vella-Arpaci to help him find his addiction.
She struggled with her weight and went through a combative relationship with her mother, the court said, a life that was no easier in school.
When she was charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit crime proceeds, she was taking up to 10 pills a day — a mix of Valium, benzodiazepine, and Xanax.
Somewhere in the midst of her turbulent life, the seed had been sown to become someone who, despite previous struggles, would find his wings deep in the swamp of the dark web.
When Ms Vella-Arpaci arrived at Melbourne Airport in April 2019, Australian Federal Police officers confiscated mobile phones and a laptop, which proved key to unraveling the mystery behind the missing pension millions.
A key piece of evidence on those laptops was a series of Telegram conversations Ms Vella-Arpaci had had over the past year, specifically with a Hong Kong-based individual named “H” and “Elvy X” or “James”. ‘, most likely based in the US, along with ‘Steven Rocks’ and ‘Kevin Butwell’.
Vella-Arpaci called himself “Binja Bob” or “Telham”.
The group’s modus operandi seemed simple enough, and the recordings of the conversations show how arduous it was to try to evade detection and thus breach the security of major superfunds, including Hostplus, AustralianSuper and Cbus.
The lengthy prosecutor’s report, which ran to more than 40 pages, laid out how the syndicate would start where all good scammers do: buy stolen identification documents from the dark web, edit them as needed to match before being used around Open bank accounts and support requests to withdraw money from super accounts.
In this process, Ms. Vella-Arpaci would receive the “majority” of the stolen identification documents via the Dark Web marketplace “Dream Market”. She would extract more of the victim’s personal information by training an accomplice to submit fake passports and Medicare details to Equifax, with subsequent credit reports revealing vital information like driver’s license numbers.
Another weapon in the syndicate’s arsenal was a sophisticated “phishing” scam that appeared online pretending to be an advertisement for a legitimate superfund that, once clicked, directed victims to a fake login page where they could provide their account credentials entered.
She mailed the fake debit cards, of which Westpac was preferred due to their ease of facilitating “very large” debit transactions, to “H” in Hong Kong, sometimes telling the bank that the account holder was overseas to avoid increasing alerts of possible fraud.
“It’s bloody great; I’m super happy and excited to be a part of it,” Ms. Vella-Arpaci, or “Binja Bob,” told Steven Rocks in 2019.
The last piece of the puzzle and hurdle the syndicate had to overcome was laundering the money it had illegally withdrawn.
Indictment documents show that Ms Vella-Arpaci would send the debit cards via FedEx to “H” in Hong Kong, which prompted an accomplice known as “The Swiper” to buy goods, mainly high-end jewellery, from various Hong Kong retailers. who received a third of the proceeds after the goods had been sold.
The sum of the “Hong Kong transactions” amounted to more than two and a half million dollars.
In her sentencing remarks, Judge Todd said Ms. Vella-Arpaci was enthusiastic and disciplined throughout, and went to great lengths to avoid detection.
A revealing point in her lengthy remarks was when she told Ms Vella-Arpaci she had shown a “complete disregard for people’s lives that she did not take into account”.
The co-conspirators remain at large.
At the end of Ms Vella-Arpaci’s hearing, friends and family members shed tears in court, bemoaning the long time she will now be absent from the life of her young child.
For her part, Vella-Arpaci may wonder if it was all worth it in the end.
Originally published as Inside Melbourne, the role of a woman in a multi-million dollar fraud syndicate