Royal Mail’s Smart Stamp

I recently heard about Royal Mail’s Smart Stamp Service, which negates the need for physical stamps by allowing users to print their own postage paid envelopes and labels.

Subscription costs £49.99 for a year or £4.99 per month, with a 3 month free trial period currently available. Postage at standard rate is payable on top of this fee.

The service looks well suited to small to medium businesses as an alternative to franking machines, and private users who make heavy use of the postal service; regular Ebayers, for example.

As a very light user of “snail mail”, I can’t justify the cost, but nevertheless had a play with the trial version, which Royal Mail lets you have for free after registering for an account on their site and providing some demographic information. I would post a direct link, but Royal Mail use a custom download wrapper to prevent this.

System requirements are fairly modest – 200MHz CPU, 64MB RAM, 20MB HDD space, 800×600 resolution – but unfortunately Smart Stamp only supports Windows (from 98SE up to XP). It supports laser and inkjet printers of 300dpi or higher resolution (which covers pretty much all modern models) and requires IE 5.01 SP1 or later, as it’s an HTML application (urgh).

Note that while the site specifically lists Windows XP SP1 as supported, the software works fine with SP2. I’d imagine Windows Server 2003 will work too. I’ve not tried running Smart Stamp under Wine in Linux but I suspect that its IE dependencies might complicate the process.

The trial version has the same features as the full version, but partially obscures the “stamp” (a kind of barcode) with a “Specimen” box. UK and overseas postage is supported, and it is possible to customise your envelopes with a slogan or logo, several examples of which are included.

There’s also a diagnostic tool, which requires a ticket number supplied by the Smart Stamp support team (although I just made one up). It spits out a passworded ZIP file – no prizes for spotting the privacy implications!

Further digging around in the software’s installation directory uncovers all the images and HTML code used by the application, and curiously some German-language text files suggesting that Smart Stamp is based on Deutsche Post’s StampIt service.

Extra-geeky observation: I noted that Smart Stamp prints its URL – SmartStamp.co.uk – on all envelopes and labels, but the server in fact requires a leading “www”. Doh!

All in all, it’s an interesting offering, and means that we in the UK now have access to what the US has offered for a long time, with one major difference: we are being charged for the privilege, while the US has traditionally offered discounts to electronic stamp users. I hope to see Smart Stamp re-emerge as a free service once Royal Mail have recouped their costs, and maybe even pass the associated savings on to users. At that point, I suspect that I will not be alone in wanting to give it a go.

However, only time will tell whether Royal Mail have got it right. The software has some good features and looks pretty, but the way it has been implemented with its reliance on IE worries me slightly in terms of security. I fully expect hackers to have a field day with this, and would not be in the least bit surprised if someone manages the defeat the system and get free postage. Just think – spam will be the least of your worries when Smart Stamp is cracked and you have 100 ads for Viagra, penis enlargement, cheap loans and solicitations for Nigerian investments on your doorstep every day ;)

OK, so maybe I’m being a little paranoid, but I can see a number of potential vulnerabilities:

  • Illicitly inflating a Smart Stamp account balance on Royal Mail’s servers, tricking the software into accepting a fake balance or spoofing the link between the local machine and the server to prevent an account being debited
  • Using refunded, used or randomly-generated “e-stamps” in the hope that they will somehow slip through the system unnoticed (are Royal Mail actually scanning every piece of Smart Stamped mail and checking it against their database?)
  • Hacking the software to prevent the trial print function from hiding the stamp, or regenerating the stamp from its human-readable code (this relies on the assumption that trial prints include valid stamps, which could indeed be true as each new document has a new code)
  • Reverse-engineering the stamp generation mechanism to produce arbitrary valid stamps (if Royal Mail don’t check stamps against their records)

Royal Mail will be in trouble if they don’t have effective mechanisms for the prevention and detection of these and another attacks, and prosecuting offenders will prove difficult as the postal system is effectively anonymous.

And of course there are the traditional problems associated with e-commerce: account hijacking and credit card fraud to name but two.

Good luck, Royal Mail…

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    23 comments on “Royal Mail’s Smart Stamp

    1. Anonymous says:

      this is a good system but let down by the “unable to find server, please try again later” window which is often popping up.

    2. Ian says:

      I run a number of voluntary organisations and like to overprint logos on all my envelopes. The system would be far more convenient if you could save a variety of templates, rather than one for envelopes and one for labels.

    3. Ian again says:

      Currently there seems to be no free trial period.

    4. Rob says:

      I have been using smartstamp for about 7 months now and have found it really good, I agree with Chris about the cheek of charging for the privelage of printing your own stamp using your own ink and then advertising their URL, but hey thats life. Their servers have gone down a couple of times but generally it works ok. I am now looking for a plugin to print the stamps through Filemaker Pro 7 on to a dymo label printer? Anyone have any ideas/knowledge?

    5. Anonymous says:

      I think smart stamp is a pile of poo. For example i run a business that sends mail all over the world.

      It’s dumb how when you ‘make’ a stamp, you select the country and weight… yet the printed stamp only has the pirce on it. Hence you can totally forget which stamp goes on which parcel.

      Also, there nothing more annoying than having all your parcels ready only for royal mail ‘funds top-up’ server to go down stopping you from printing your stamps :@

      A step in the right direction but i should not have to pay Royal Mail for reducing their work load.

    6. Anonymous says:

      I was involved with the development of Smart Stamp, as it’s an adaptation of the German equivalent “Stamp It” developed by my company.

      All bar codes – called matrix actually – are checked by the mail’s server, and include, coded, the sender’s personal ID, part of the recipient’s address, etc. Trust me, the system is very very safe.

    7. max says:

      Not sure if this topic is still running. We would love to be in rob’s position, i.e. having been using smartstamp for just 4 1/2 months, even. Sadly we ran into problems from the start. On trying to submit our customer number the welcome to smartstamp window freezes and can get no further. Numerous calls to the help desk since June ’05 and we seem no nearer to being able to use what appears to be a brilliant facility for a small business like ours. A number of diagnostic files have been sent to us and returned and still the techies at GFT Technologies AG and Lockheed Martin, who developed the product, have not yet cracked the glytch! What adds to the frustration is smartstamp’s hopeless customer service people who never get back to us and never have any update info to give us to at least fool us into thinking that someone is trying to do something about the problem. Apparently we are one of a handful of smartstamp customers with this problem. Is there anyone else out there experiencing anything similar?

    8. mark hearne says:

      I have used this for a while and find it a clunky piece of software. Multiple templates would be a serious advantage. Running it on more then one machine on your network causes it to fall over.

      It has got to be a simple thing to write,

    9. Tom says:

      The software is rubbish and un-user friendly. There are serious sever problems – so it won’t work sometimes.

      However, it is very cool being able to print your own stamps and ANYTHING beats queuing up in a post office!

    10. Jack Denys says:

      When I press “Here’s a pic of an envelope designed in Smart Stamp”, a screen appears “Error 404 – Not Found”.
      Any chance you can send a scan of that envelope?
      Thanks,
      Jack

    11. Chris says:

      Sorry Jack – I’m not sure where the original image has gone, and I don’t have the software installed so can’t create a new one.

    12. Mike says:

      I have been using Smartstamp for nearly 2 years and gound it invaluable to save time queueing at the post office – that alone is worth £50 a year!

    13. Bob says:

      Just installed smartstamp and bought an annual account.
      I can log in fine to the website.
      I can change printing password fine.
      I can’t log in using smartstamp software.

      Regardless of how great the software and service is potentially, it’s worth nothing if it doesn’t work.

      I’m now waiting for a refund.

    14. Nigel says:

      We use Smartstamp fairly extensively, running it under win4lin on Linux to print postage for our small business. It generally works fairly well, apart from being a rather rough edged bit of software (we use sheets of labels and have issues with printing multiple different stamps on sheets, problems with logo settings and general clunkiness). It would be so great to not have to run up win4lin everytime, but installing under wine doesn’t seem to work because it can’t detect the version of IE that it wants.

      Its a nice idea, but really wants a rewrite to smooth it off and remove the dependency on IE.

    15. David G. says:

      If anyone’s still reading these comments…. I have been using SmartStamp since the start date, and it has always worked fine UNTIL NOW. I can no longer get it to work from my PC, which is very frustrating. The help desk has not responded apart from an acknowledgement of my problem. The problem is that it will not communicate with the server. I tried… uninstalling Norton Internet Security, uninstalling SmartStamp, cleaning the registry (errorKiller), reinstalling SmartStamp (but not Norton) and disabling Windows XP Firewall. I also installed a packet sniffer that shows that smartStamp *is* exchanging data with the server. But when I try to log on (typing in my account number etc), it says “Verifying your Internet connection settings failed”. The info Im giving on connection settings, proxies etc is correct. What on earth’s going on? If anyone can help I would, of course, be very grateful.

    16. David G. says:

      I have solved the SmartStamp problem I outlined above. In Internet Explorer, the setting “Internet Options / Advanced / Do not save encrypted pages to disc” should be unchecked.

      Perhaps it is one of those bizarre Microsoft things: if you access a secure site, you might want to prevent your PC from caching the pages, for security reasons. But if you do that, application software cannot access then the data :-(

    17. C Airlie says:

      Hi David G. Having the same problem and cannot for the life of me work it out, I’ve tried what you said to no avail. Can you tell me what version of Internet Explorer you were using? Were you online through a proxy server? Any other hints would be great if you have any. I’ll keep checking this page for replies.

      Thanks,

      Colin

    18. P Cook says:

      I have a problem, which is, when I try to use my excel address book Smart Stamp Freezes. Does anyone know how to resolve this as the help line say this is a one off. My colleague has no problem with it and we use the same packages.

      Thanks

      Pat

    19. Marcelino Klecha says:

      Enjoyed reading this post, thanks :)

    20. Richard says:

      Is anyone using SmartStamp on Windows 7?
      —————————————
      Not only does it not work for me, but the instructions include the usual specifications and seem to imply that XP is the latest version.

      Incidentally I found the program worked on my XP machine (before it blew up.)

    21. Chris Barnes says:

      Richard – have you tried running SmartStamp in compatibility mode?

      http://www.sevenforums.com/tutorials/316-compatibility-mode.html

      I haven’t tried SmartStamp on Windows 7 so I don’t know whether it will work, but it’s definitely worth a shot.

    22. Mike G says:

      The eby version does work with Win 7. I have a machine working with this. But it does not seem to work with IE9.

    23. Bruce says:

      I have been looking at Smart Stamp but still not sold on the idea, I have been looking at the demo but I can not see were you can print labels of for Packets. we send out more packets than letters and at the moment it looks like a service for printing postage labels for letter, can you add softwear for posting packets??
      Any help please, it this package does not handle packets can anyone tell me of a package that dose.

      Regards

      Bruce

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