By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Dec 01, 2014 at 11:25 AM Photography:

Happy Cyber Monday! As you do your online shopping today, we're here to help with a bunch of tips, guides, fun features and more to get your holiday season started off right.

On this Cyber Monday, I thought I’d share some memories from a previous life, one spent in retail. From 1999 through 2008, I worked at Carson Pirie Scott (or Boston Store up here) as a Loss Prevention Agent. It was probably the best part-time job a college kid-turned-part-time-journalist could ever ask for.

I got to sit in a dark room full of cameras and watch to see if people were shopflifting. And, if they did steal something, it was my job to try and stop that person from leaving the property, get the store’s stuff back and then send them to jail.

I chased crack heads, tussled with gangsters and ruined many a prom night. Seriously. It's why I kept doing it even after I started writing full-time as an "on-call" employee for special internal investigations.

It’s been a while since I’ve done this, and it was in another state, so I’m sure company policies have changed and shoplifting laws are different here, so I don’t think I’m giving up any state secrets. On paper the job itself was pretty simple: watch someone walk in, see ‘em pick up an item, see ‘em take it, see ‘em leave – go get ‘em.

Now, real life is never that simple. Professional thieves make it hard. They know the rules of the game, and the laws. Some use distraction. Some use children. Some use brute force.

Fortunately, I was never attacked. But, a co-worker was assaulted in a parking lot, and had her head bounced off the pavement a few times. One was maced. Another had a machete (yes, a machete) pulled on him. I recovered weapons off people (usually knives, and one pair of brass knuckles) and I did forcefully take people to the ground – but my line was always, always, personal safety first. I would go up to that line, but never cross it – that’s what uniformed and armed police are for, and I never hesitated to call them to get back-up.

I worked in Aurora, one of the largest cities in Illinois, and it could get rough in spots. You never knew who might have an outstanding warrant, who was on bail, who was desperate. Every shoplifter, from the teenager trying to steal a belt for his homecoming outfit, the wannabe prom queen trying to pocket new jewelry, to the dude smashing a display case for watches had to be treated as if they could be dangerous.

And that’s just the "external" theft – so while running down some dude who was higher than a kite for some pants got the heart rate up – the true fun came from crawling through walls and drop ceilings to place pin hole cameras, or disguised cameras in back areas to catch employees who thought they had the game figured out.

Internal theft trumps external in terms of dollars lost, because there is inherent trust with an employee. Unless it’s super obvious, it takes a bit before a retailer figures out where a loss is coming from – and then you do whatever you need to do to stop the bleeding – parking your car at the other end of the mall and getting to work hours early, "hiding" out so no one knows you’re there, poring over hours of tape and register transactions. That stuff was real fun.

I only went to court once to testify – my cases were always cut and dry – it’s on tape, you’re busted, felony or not. This particular one was for a public indecency. Some dude was hanging out, looking at a particular employee, and um … enjoying doing so. That one wasn’t a particularly fun experience for anyone, but it was an act that had to stop, for everyone’s safety.  

Other times, you had to deal with people who just did the unimaginable. For instance, one woman (or women) decided that after she couldn’t break the ink tag on some expensive jeans, took them in the fitting room and decided to use them as a toilet. Yes, that happened. Actually, more than once. Thankfully, I didn’t have work maintenance.

Cyber Monday wasn’t really a thing I dealt with – online sales, even at the dawn of the internet shopping age – was handled elsewhere. I concentrated more on the in-store experience, merchandise theft, and credit and check fraud. I couldn’t imagine the job now, with so many methods of payment, increased instances of identity theft, the online-order/in-store pickup situation. I can only think it’s a much more difficult job now.

It was fun while I did it, but I wouldn’t go back to it. That said, I still catch myself watching shoppers when I’m out shopping on my own – certain behaviors are always a tell – and then I look around to see if that store’s security is watching. Ironically, that probably makes me look like I’m up to something! So, I think today, I’ll just order some stuff online and enjoy my hot chocolate, where the only thing I’m watching is my television.

Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.

A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.

To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.

Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining

In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.

Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.