A Chanel handbag. Paris, France, October 6, 2015. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Praepitcha Smatsorabudh’s business was illegal but brilliant. She would buy designer handbags from department stores, then return fake versions she had specially made in China and Hong Kong. Most of the real bags she would sell on Instagram and eBay.

Prosecutors say she also kept dozens or perhaps hundreds of high-end bags for herself. She did it all, according to court documents, “because of her compulsion to have expensive handbags.”

Smatsorabudh, of Arlington County, was arrested in June and sentenced Wednesday to 33 months in prison by a federal judge in Alexandria.

“I think what you did was ingenious,” Judge Bruce Lee told her. “It’s just stealing, but the Internet has given us so many more ways to steal. . . . I thought I’d seen everything.”

To avoid detection, Smatsorabudh went to more than 60 T.J. Maxx stores in 12 states, using 16 different credit cards. At one point, she was the company’s biggest online customer in the world. T.J. Maxx was able to identify at least 226 fake handbags Smatsorabudh returned. Neiman Marcus found 10 more.

The scheme cost the two department stores over $400,000 in fraudulent returns. Moreover, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kellen S. Dwyer argued, some of the knockoff bags she returned were probably resold to customers who paid top dollar.

“That is a very big concern,” he said in court, “bigger than $400,000.”

Some buyers have also claimed that Smatsorabudh, 41, sold them bags online that designer stores confirmed were well-made fakes.

It all made Smatsorabudh, a preschool teacher, rich enough to drive a Lexus, fly first class and stay in luxury Miami and Las Vegas hotels, according to prosecutors.

But defense attorney Nina Ginsberg said her client’s behavior was fueled by trauma, not greed.

“This whole collecting of these handbags, returning of these handbags — it became a substitute for human connection, which I think is profoundly sad,” Ginsberg said in court. Smatsorabudh, who grew up in Thailand, Ginsberg said, was physically and emotionally abused by her parents, who also fought regularly and openly cheated on each other. “I think it was brought on by . . . extreme bouts of loneliness and isolation.”

Smatsorabudh, her thin arms trembling and with tears running down her face, apologized profusely Wednesday for her crime. She was convicted of wire fraud.

“What I did was so wrong,” she said. “I deserve to be in jail.”

Along with her sentences, she agreed to pay $403,250 in restitution. Dwyer said he would recommend that the federal government first draw on any funds garnered by the sale of her car, handbags and other forfeited possessions.

When she is released, Smatsorabudh will almost certainly be deported to Thailand, both parties agreed. She was in the United States legally but is not a citizen.

Her Instagram account, called “richgirlscollection,” remains active. After hundreds of shots of handbags, sushi and French pastries, the last picture is a quote. It was posted around the time when her home was searched by federal agents.

“What comes easy, won’t last,” it reads. “What lasts won’t come easy.”